Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong?

A friendly debate has come up between the atheists Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. The question under debate is, “Can atheism be proven wrong?” On the one hand, Jerry Coyne has argued that his atheism is, and should be, capable of being defeated by evidence. On the other hand, PZ Myers has argued that religious claims are incoherent, and so it’s pointless trying to refute them in that way. Even if seemingly divine events did happen, we could explain them as hallucinations, or of the intervention of aliens — there’s no need to talk about God.

On behalf of Team Coyne, Greta Christina has argued that Myers is right to say that religious claims are bullshit, but that Coyne is right to insist that atheism can be defeated by evidence. However, on behalf of Team Myers, Diaphanitas has argued that Christina has missed the point: if you think that religious claims are incoherent, then you can’t think that they can be defeated by the evidence. In order for a claim to be capable of being defeated by evidence, it has to be a coherent claim in the first place. (Edit: Or, at least, that’s the cliff’s notes version. I’m going to be a naughty blogger by not giving more of a summary than that. If you’re interested in the full conversation, click the links above.)

I’ll argue that Christina is right, hoping to score points for Team Coyne, and hopefully be the hero to capture Team Myers’s filthy squid-adorned flag. Specifically, I’ll be arguing against some of Diaphanitas’s core claims. (I’ll avoid the stuff about NOMA, because I want to avoid complaints of tl;dr.) In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong according to the evidence, and that’s the only point worth making.


The sticking point between Christina and Diaphanitas is what I’ll call “the semantic principle of bullshit”. Since religious claims on the whole do not hold themselves to common standards of evidence, we have to say that religious sentences are epistemically unstable. Hence, they’re not the sorts of things that can or should be evaluated in terms of evidence.

And it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going. (It doesn’t matter to my argument if you don’t agree; you can just assume it for the sake of seeing my point.) Since atheism is the rejection of theism, endorsements of atheism have an equally small burden. As Hitchens says: “What can be asserted without evidence, can be rejected without evidence.”

Unlike Diaphanitas, I don’t think the principle of bullshit makes any difference to Christina’s point. For bullshit claims can be plausibly interpreted in a literal way, if our aim is to understand the intentions and beliefs of some mainstream religious persons. It seems to me that the only way to defeat a bullshit claim is for us to round up all of the most plausible interpretations of the claim, and then show how each interpretation is false. Hence, you have to refute every plausible use of the sentence: by treating it as a God Hypothesis, and then as an allegory, and then as an expression of self-assertion, and so on.

So that will mean that eventually atheists will have to get around to showing that the best explanation of the evidence does not include reference to any Gods, and hence theistic claims are improbable. In other words: atheists will have to make the argument that Richard Dawkins makes in the first half of the God Delusion (or something like it). And to the extent that you’re arguing in terms of facts, you must also think of yourself as open to criticism on the basis of the evidence. As far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean that atheists like Coyne and Christina are “obsessed with the evidence”. It means that they insist that the examination of the evidence is essential when you’re in the business of interpreting sober, factual claims. If that’s an obsession, it’s a healthy one, as Diaphanitas admits.


So where’s the beef? Evidently, it has something to do with paradigms.

Diaphanitas thinks that evidence plays a limited role in the history of science (and hence, presumably, an even more limited role in the history of atheism and religion). For Diaphanitas, Thomas Kuhn‘s historiography of science is the best way of understanding the relationship between evidence and scientific change.

The spectre of Thomas Kuhn rises often, but it really needs to behave itself when it does. For while it’s true that Kuhn thought that a change in worldview involved a kind of “conversion” or “theory choice”, it’s also true that Kuhn argued that “objectivity ought to analyzable in terms of criteria like accuracy and consistency”. On my reading of Kuhn, these virtues were necessary for scientific practice, though not sufficient. If this means Kuhn was “begging the doxastic question”, then let’s also blame him for getting us to care so much about accuracy.

Diaphanitas, like Kuhn, wants to say that we’re doing more than just consulting the evidence — we’re making a choice, too. That’s fine — but it’s also a very weak claim, and it is consistent with the idea that evidence has to play a central role in scientific inquiry (and factual discourse). To my knowledge, there is nothing in Kuhn that helps us to say that religious claims in the 21st century world are plausible candidate explanations of the evidence. (As survivors of the Great Lisbon Earthquake could tell us, the Argument from Design is simply not consistent with the evidence.) And when you argue in favor of the Abrahamic God using the Argument from Design, you are committing yourself to a kind of game that involves checking the facts — those are the rules that the proponents of the Watchmaker God are committed to. In that sense, contrary to Diaphanitas’s claim, the naturalist and the Watchmaker God are “in the same playing field”. They’re both responsive to the evidence.


Still, Myers and Diaphanitas are correct in the following sense. If the principle of bullshit is right, then that means that it is wrong to think that religious claims must be read as expressions of a kind of unique content. So, any theists who say “The Bible is just an allegory” are wrong, and any who say “The Bible must be taken literally” are wrong too. It’s either one, and more besides. The argumentative atheist has to use the shotgun method, taking aim at one interpretation after the other.

The moral of the story is this. Just because religious claims are unstable, doesn’t mean that the uses of the claims have to be up in the air. One use of religious claims involves the Argument from Design; and the argument from design is perfectly coherent, perfectly stable, and perfectly worthless. Hence, any atheism concerned with the Abrahamic Watchmaker God is supported on the basis of the evidence. If evidence turned the other way — e.g., if a credible argument could be made that the problem of evil was just a pseudo-problem — then the only responsible option for a Watchmaker critic would be to reconsider their atheism.

*Edited for clarity.

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  1. Benjamin,
    With all due respect, what is the purpose of this piece? Can it be succinctly, and comprehensibly stated?

  2. The point is to answer the title question by saying: “Yes.” Or, as I said at the outset, “In other words, some interpretations of atheism and theism can both be shown to be wrong, and that’s the only point worth making.”

  3. “I guess we could have an online questionnaire.”

    Come take my poll!

  4. There is a difference between religious claims and claims that God exists.

    Instead of religious claims, wouldn’t it be more exact to talk of theistic claims?

  5. Sure, but I don’t know if it would make a difference. If anything, theistic claims are even harder to interpret than religious ones. At least when you’re criticizing religious claims, you have a vague idea of what kinds of interpretations people will be satisfied with.

  6. Not all theists are religious and not all religious people are theists.

    For instance, I know Jews who are both religious and agnostics or even weak atheists. That is, religion for them has nothing to do with the existence of God and is related to things like participating in a tradition, belonging to a community, a positive experience of ritual or a metaphoric view of religious texts.

    I’m sure that we find theists who have no religious affiliation and may even dislike organized religion.

    Since the whole post is about whether atheistic claims can be proven wrong, the post should contrast atheistic claims with
    theistic ones, not with religious ones.

  7. Something went over my head. I read the post, enjoyed it, and thought I understood it, but I never did catch in what way a claim to atheism could be proven wrong. I can’t think of anything that would be sufficient evidence of a God that wouldn’t have me equally worried I was hallucinating, as was mentioned in the first paragraph.

  8. Amos, it’s a good point. But the devil will be in the details, and until we learn more about the particular person’s beliefs and the context of discussion, you’ll have to use the kind of method of interpreting bullshit that I suggested.

    Michael, it’s true that I’m stuck on the Watchmaker God because the Argument of Design is what Diaphanitas hammered on, and that attracted my attention. So I owe you something.

    The objections from hallucination or alien intervention are not good enough examples. Suppose that the laws of the universe radically changed in some stable way, and that the best explanation for these pervasive changes had to involve some kind of special force. If that happened, then presumably Myers would continue to say that he’s hallucinating, or whatever. But the point is that so long as the best explanation of the evidence is theistic, Myers would not be justified in denying it. To the extent that they’re incompatible, inference to the best explanation trumps principled skepticism.

  9. “But the point is that so long as the best explanation of the evidence is theistic, Myers would not be justified in denying it.”

    This seems to make sense, but it also seems sorta tautological. There’s the old adage that sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic (or supernatural), but where would a good skeptic draw that line in understanding? Not wanting to be guilty of using the “god of the gaps” strategy, at what point should I think something is the result of supernatural occurrences or natural, but non-intuitive occurrences?

    I know that certain scientific endeavors, such as string theory, can sometimes seem to require the same kind of faith that certain theologies do. But for a skeptic, it seems like it’s more reasonable or justified to think that string theorists, with their beautiful and elegant formulas, are on a better track than someone who says that it’s so beyond understanding that we should just posit that God (or something theological) is the answer.

  10. A responsible skeptic would have to draw the line on the basis of the evidence. Everyone will (and do) decide for themselves where they’ll draw that line. We see that pretty clearly in the blog discussion, where people have produced a multitude of interesting (but ultimately uninformative) stories about the conditions that would cause them to Believe. As a matter of fact, I’m a relatively wimpy believer, a kind of agnostic with atheist sympathies, so just a bit of evidence might convince me. By contrast, it will take relatively more evidence to convince other atheists.

    But I don’t think it’s very productive to pin down where exactly on the spectrum we ought to fall, as if we had to be a single army or a united front standing in a particular area. Where we stand will depend on a lot of different factors, like the details of the person’s scientific theory, the strength of their will, and so on. So people can answer your questions about distinguishing between aliens and gods in whatever ways they like, so long as each of their views are responsive to the evidence. The diversity of opinion is irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned. The only point is that, every genuine knower will change their beliefs in proportion to a change in evidence. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in one spot for everyone. But as the evidence mounts up, you have to expect the number of epistemically responsible skeptics to diminish. Though I admit that that principle sounds uninformative, I prefer to think of it as platitudinous.

    (Incidentally, in all this I’m presuming that “supernatural” means something that isn’t trivially false. So, while some people think that you can rule out supernatural stuff by definition, while I think that’s a silly line of argument. It might be true that if we learned more about the supernatural, the more we’d be forced to change our account of the natural.)

    String theory is interesting. It’s coherent, but there’s no reason to say it’s accurate because there’s no real evidence. I would think that skepticism is perfectly justified in this area — there’s no “best explanation” yet.

  11. @Benjamin – Thanks. That certainly helps clear up, for me, where you’re coming from, and also what has stumped me in conversations on this topic that I’ve had with others. Case in point, the idea of the supernatural, to me, does seem to only concern itself with the trivially false. By definition, I think. What kind of working definition do you use to consider ideas of the supernatural? At the very least, the word seems to imply concern with those things that we don’t have words or concepts or experience enough to talk about coherently, so any conversation that brings up the idea of the supernatural does immediately become incoherent. This is the effect the word, and my understanding of it’s definition, has on me.

  12. I think of the concept of “supernatural” extensionally, in terms of the typical things that are supposed to fit into the category — gods, fairies, and so on — instead of intensionally, as in “things that are not even possibly explicable as natural phenomena”. There are a few reasons I think this is the way to approach the subject:

      1. It’s easier to investigate. As a general rule, it’s easier to verify the existence of the members of an extension, than it is to interpret the criteria for membership. It’s just a more convenient place to start an inquiry.

      2. You lose nothing by doing so. As you noted earlier when quoting Arthur C Clarke, we learn that magic is indistinguishable from advanced forms of technology. (As I type this I am using a MacBook, and it might as well be run by tiny little hamsters with wings for all I know.) And the reverse is also true: advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

      So how do we understand Clarke’s aphorism? On the one hand, if we think that they’re only indistinguishable because they’re both inexplicable to ignoramuses like myself, then it will also turn out that you can make an argument that there’s no such thing as a supernatural explanation. I think you were suggesting an argument along these lines, and you’re not wrong to do so. But on the other hand, if magic and technology are indistinguishable because they are both essentially *super-cool shit*, then it will turn out that natural explanations retain certain magical qualities. That’s more of a Sagan-style of interpretation.

      So it’s a glass half-full / glass half-empty sort of thing. The upshot: Arthur C Clarke’s quote can be used to make either case.

      3. There is no obvious conceptual connection between the natural and the explainable. “Nature” is a category that is about the type of a thing and its causal history (ontology), while “explainable” is about what and how we know a thing is what we think it is (epistemology).

      4. It’s fair. We should try to be at least a little charitable to the people we’re arguing against, or else we end up being unreasonable assholes. Which can be fun, but I’m not interested in being that kind of person.

    So that’s what explains my preference. But it might not matter very much. For even if we did find supernatural things out there in the universe, and even if we thought “explanation” and “natural” were synonyms, and even if as a result those supernatural things were downgraded into the category of the natural, that wouldn’t necessarily have any effect on how we act towards the things. The mind, for example, used to be seen as if they were expressions of the spirit, or vital force; now we see minds as active brains with a nervous system. But that doesn’t mean that we treat people like automatons.

    So by analogy, if the Abrahamic God were explainable, then it might still turn out to be the sort of thing we should worship: say, if we lived in Philip K Dick’s “Galactic Pot-Healer” or “VALIS” universes. But actually, as a matter of fact, I am quite sure that a worshippable Abrahamic Watchmaker cannot be discovered or explained, because of the problem of evil rules it out decisively. Atheism, with respect to the Abrahamic Watchmaker, is the only live empirical possibility.

  13. Of course atheism can be proven wrong – read St Anselm’s ontological argument!

  14. Amos, re: the Jewish religious agnostics- I think that there is a huge conflation of culture and religion in Judaism. I think that these religious agnostics see themselves as participating more in the former, while calling themselves somewhat religious in order to please their parents and gain acceptance (I witnessed this first hand growing up in Jewish schools).

    Also, the fundamental question that I think is at heart here is the notion of belief systems, or narratives. Both atheism and religion are forms of both; just as the religious individual constructs meaning around faith, so too does the atheist derive meaning from reason. Perhaps what is really at question here is the justification for putting all of our faith in reason and epistemology, especially when the big questions still remain unanswered.

    I think there cannot be a true winner in this debate, since both sides independently offer us forms of meaning that the other cannot provide.

  15. Rachel:

    I have a very good Jewish friend, who describes himself as a “religious atheist”. (I’m Jewish myself, but a non-religious atheist.)

    He doesn’t believe in God, but he values the religious experience, the experience of the holy or of holiness, which he associates with Judaism. He studies Hebrew and is quite expert on Judaism.

    That’s why I believe that it’s more exact to contrast atheism with theism, not with religion.

  16. Stephen, no, I think that’s a pretty terrible argument. There are a few reasons to think this, but the reason that I reject it is that I think it has a wrongheaded view of “perfection”. The ontological argument presupposes that perfection must be real. But it seems to me that perfection is necessarily unreal. All things are imperfect.

  17. Amos,

    I think cultural atheism might be a better term… I feel a bit the same way as your friend does.

    What then differentiates theism and religion?

  18. Theism is the belief that God (or gods) exist. It’s a fairly precise term.

    Religion is a set of organized, collective practices or rituals, with a family resemblance (in the sense that Wittgenstein uses the term), since actually, some forms of Buddhism, recognized as a religion, are non-theistic or perhaps atheistic.

    It may be easier to say what religion is not than what it is. If I say that religion concerns itself with “spiritual” matters, I’d have to define what “spiritual” means.

    Let’s see: religion and spiritual matters are not concerned with making money, with producing tangible goods,
    with discovering scientific facts, with increasing the gross national product, with winning
    the World Cup.

    Religion also has its downside.
    Some religions are concerned with telling you whom you can love and punishing you if you love someone of the wrong sex. Some religions are concerned with convincing everyone that they alone possess the truth and punishing those who deny that they possess the truth.

    Thus, religion, unlike theism, covers a wide variety of practices and attitudes and beliefs.

    Religion is so widespread and contains such a variety of practices, attitudes and beliefs that people use it as a rationalization or justification for whatever they would probably do otherwise, be it helping the poor, seeking the Holy, controlling the sex life of others or flying airplanes into tall buildings.

    That is, if religion didn’t exist, we would have to invent another set of rationalizations and justifications to replace it.

    That being said, philosophy tries to provide a set of reasons which justify our actions in terms which can be collectively discussed and argued about, questioning basic assumptions that cannot be questioned in any religion. While I doubt that philosophy ever manages to question its basic assumptions with complete radicalism, it goes a lot farther down that road than religion does, and that seems positive to me.

  19. The problem with Myers, as with the vast majority of new atheists, is that he stinks at philosophy. New atheists seem to spend so much time banging on about how stupid theists are to actually bother engaging with any theistic argument that doesn’t come from some evangelical fruitcake.

    Quentin Smith is quite good, I would suggest people try his “The metaphilosophy of naturalism” for a perspective on these issues. He’s an atheist – but he is also a rather good philosopher. It’s time for all the internet atheists to ditch Ditchkins and get out of the philosophical kiddie pool. Please.

  20. Adam, Myers often makes contentious and incendiary claims that I don’t happen to find convincing. Also, he’s also a bit of a philosophobe. However, he’s also highly engaged with *everyone* on the theistic/accommodationist side, from mainstream to slipstream. And 99% of the time his views are based on reasons. That’s what makes him usually worth reading, even if it’s just as a catalyst for debate. He’s just doing the same thing that a peer tutor in philosophy would do — put stuff on the table, get a debate going, and keep the fire burning indefinitely. But perhaps I am biased, since I’m generally in favor of corrupting the youth (in Athens and elsewhere).

    About “Ditchkins”: Hitchens is extremely well informed about philosophy. I think it’s impossible for anyone who has read his work to seriously think that he “sucks at philosophy”.

    Dawkins is not as well versed in philosophy as Hitchens, which occasionally makes for some awkwardness in debates. However, his arguments are decent, and are frequently either misunderstood or ignored entirely. It seems to me that more critics are more interested in debating the title of “The God Delusion” than they are in performing a sober assessment of its contents.

  21. You are most of you mistaking one question for another entirely different one. It is a facile mistake to confuse the question ‘was the universe intended?’ with the question ‘is religion right or wrong?’.

    Clearly religion and atheism can both be wrong – the only reason this isn’t more widely recognised is that clever atheists like Dawkins tend to drive the fools who listen to him towards limited alternatives. He draws the eye to the weakest arguments he can find, defeats them easily, and then implies that he has won the argument.

    In fact, the fine tuning that was put on the map in 1979 (see the 2007 book Universe or Multiverse? edited by Bernard Carr, with short essays from the world’s top philosophers and physicists on the subject), shows that the view that there’s some intention behind the universe is now what arises from what we observe, while atheism is a faith, as it requires belief in trillions of unobservable other universes. So there has been an exact switch in position, as after Darwin’s discovery, atheism arose from observation of the world, and belief in some designer required faith. It’s now exactly the other way round.

    Religion was widely used to control people and keep them in line, make them obey the social rules, and is full of nonsense. So was early medicine – it was leeches and quackery. So therefore we should throw out the aims and principles of modern medecine, I suppose? Should we judge the underlying ideas by those rubbishy old versions of them?

    Keep religion right out of the argument. With or without it, the fine tuning would make us have to investigate design now anyway, so religion is irrelevant – it’s not directly relevant anyway. Remove all assumptions about what a designer would be like. ALL ideas, such as the idea that morality might be involved. That’s a human idea, put into religion to control people. Throw out ALL of your many, many wrong assumptions. Then put your brains back in, and take a look at the questions in front of us.

  22. David, although we might differ on some other related issues, it seems as though we agree on the conclusion: that atheism can be proven (and proven wrong).

  23. I think it’s lot more realistic to talk about whether strong or overwhelming evidence can be found, rather than a rigourous proof – either way.

    To prove atheism right is pretty much impossible, because you’re talking about an intelligence that if it exists is clearly motivated to leave us wondering whether or not it exists. This is one of the greatest taboos among thinkers, because both atheists and Christians can’t stand the idea – for entirely different reasons. So it has been edited out everywhere.

    But design that deliberately leaves the question of design open is unavoidable as a possibility in the fine tuning, which will have
    been found by any advanced civilisations, if there are others. Taken alongside the fact that life evolves from single cell creatures, as if by chance, this leaves a big question mark in the universe. And it has various effects that would be motivating reasons for it – one being that it has stimulated our intelligence, as it is doing in discussions like this one.

    I think overwhelming evidence can be found for intention behind the universe (though not a rigourous proof), which arises from the fact that we now know that if it came about by chance, it came about in a probabilistic way – that is, in monkey-and-typewriter fashion. There are various hallmarks that can identify a system that arose in that kind of way, and our universe doesn’t have them, it has other patterns, that suggest it didn’t arise in that way.

  24. True, the language of evidence is better than that of proof. I just used it out of homage to Greta Christina’s post. Substitute “proof” with “the best explanation on the basis of the evidence”.

    I’m not sure what conditions we would be epistemically warranted to have intuitions in an evasive God (or intelligent first cause, or whatever). When would it be appropriate for us to look at evidence and say, on balance, that the best explanation of the evidence is that God is playing an everlasting game of hide and seek? I’m sure there must be some conditions (insert an imaginative VALIS-style science fiction story here). But I’m also sure that the best explanation of the fact that there is no such evidence (at least as things stand), is that there is no such God.

    I don’t call the possibility of a fine-tuner a taboo — I say that it’s a terrible explanation of all of the phenomena you mentioned. You happen to have a very different view on what counts as a best explanation, but that’s neither here nor there for present purposes. The real difference between our views is that I’m willing to admit that there are conditions where the evidence ought to change our minds in favor of fine tuning — evidence is possible either way. But I don’t think that you’re willing to say the same for atheism, since “to prove atheism right is pretty much impossible”. That sounds like you’re tilting the tables in favor of your favored outcome. That ain’t cricket.

  25. First, when I say ‘fine tuning’ I mean the apparent fine tuning in the laws of physics. Everyone calls it that. The point is well established – it’s now been accepted by both sides of the argument. During the ’90s all 3rd way arguments started to look no good, and the book published in ’07 (the proceedings of two conferences on the fine tuning) shows some of the world’s top thinkers all agreed that if the universe came about by chance then some sort of multiverse theory would be needed to explain it.

    So it’s either design or a probabilistic origin. There just isn’t any other way. The best way to show one to be true is to rule out the other, and it happens to be easier to do that one way round than the other.

    What I said about proving atheism being near impossible is not tipping the table. The idea of proof is somewhat irrelevant anyway, but in fact it’s generally much harder to prove that something doesn’t exist than that something does. And particularly something that if it existed would certainly have intended that question to remain open in the universe – those with a bit of honesty will admit that unavoidable point. But leave that point, it’s not much fun.

    By the way, thanks Amos for distinguishing between religion and the idea of the intended universe without religion. personally I don’t think the word ‘theism’ is far enough from religion. To give an example, John Barrow, a hugely respected philosopher/physicist and one of the authors of “The anthropic principle”, has recently put forward the idea that the fine tuning in the laws of physics that got us here may mean we’re living in a computer simulation. To test this, he suggested looking for economies made due to limited computing power, or bugs in the system. I don’t agree with this view, but I’m just pointing out that there are now views that go beyond the word ‘theism’, in attempts to explain the fine tuning.

    You must understand that the new kind of atheism you mention above is partly a reaction to the fine tuning. The initial argument among the world’s top thinkers raged during the early ’80s, then Dawkins’ first book attacking religion came out.

    But the current atheism is also because we’re now in the process of shaking the bad effect of religion out of our system. Religion got filled with putdowns and threats, so it could be used for controlling people. So many of us resent the psychological damage that religion has done. There’s such strong feeling both for and against religion, that it makes both groups basically stop thinking. But that shouldn’t affect the intelligent lot, only the other lot! And right now we have some very interesting food for thought.

  26. Thanks for clarifying with respect to fine tuning. I’m starting to make more sense of your earlier comments.

    I haven’t gotten my hands on Hawking’s latest. Evidently he argues for something like the multiverse option. That’s pretty stiff competition, you have to admit. Which is not to say anything against Barrow or anyone else. Still, it would be interesting if I were to walk across the park and take a headcount of the people at the Perimeter Institute who side with Barrow and who with Hawking.

    Anyway. My point about evidence is actually a very important point — and it’s the only point of the post, in fact! So if it doesn’t interest you, then it means you think the post is boring. (And perhaps it is. So it goes.)

    You’re right to say that, *in general*, it is harder to prove a negative than a positive (in our informal and unsatisfactory sense of “prove”). (As an aside, I am glad you qualified this statement; obviously, if I am in an empty well-lit white room, I can immediately disconfirm the existence of any medium-sized elephants in it, in just about the same way that I could confirm the existence of medium-sized elephants if I had been at the zoo.) But the problem of proving a negative is not a live issue when we we are making an inference to the best explanation on the basis of fairly robust evidence, which is countered by a history of failed theistic hypotheses and unmotivated ephemera.

    This may be a useful way of summing up the trouble the theist is in. They are either making epistemic claims (about what could be verified), or they are making metaphysical ones (about the existence of in principle unverifiable things). But for all epistemic purposes, inference to the best explanation cuts right to the chase. And for all metaphysical purposes, the imagination can match any claim of ineffability with a claim of verifiability.

  27. I don’t know what you mean when you say that your point about evidence is boring to me – what point? You didn’t say anything boring.. I’ve said that finding evidence for either of these two views of the universe is more realistic than the idea of finding proof. But until we look, we’re only guessing at what we might find. Various new avenues now present themselves.

    But you’re wrong about ‘inference to the best explanation’, and claims about ‘the existence of in principle unverifiable things’. As I’ve said, science looks at what we observe, not what we imagine might be the case. If we go by what we observe, rather than what we imagine might be the case, then the universe looks designed. That’s the new situation, and what you call ‘new atheism’ has arisen in reaction to it, though they won’t tell you that. Your use of the word ‘unverifiable’ is somewhat ironic, because the many unobservable universes (with widely varying laws of physics) now needed for ours to have arisen by chance are what is unverifiable in the new situation.

    The majority at the Perimeter Institute are atheists, as you say, which is why they’re desperately trying to get theories of ‘outside’ and ‘before’ the big bang nowadays, in order to push back against the problem of the fine tuning. But their work on multiverse theories is, as always, unverifiable.

    Much of the 2007 book “Universe or multiverse?”, in which each has about 10 pages, is spent arguing on the issue of whether multiverse theories can be tested, and the reason is they’re desperately trying to save atheism from becoming a faith. But it has become one – and Paul Davies, for instance, points out that a multiverse would need its own set of laws one level up, and we’d have to explain how they arose – and they’d in fact contain some hard to explain ‘fine tuning’ as well.

    Looking at the other avenue, the new evidence suggests an entirely different set of motivations for a designer than any set out in religion. Most ‘intelligent’ people are too thrown by the annoyingness of religion to even look at these possibilities, but if it wasn’t for religion being so goddamn annoying, we’d all be looking at them.

  28. >The best way to show one to be true
    >is to rule out the other

    Well, there’s the problem right there.
    By your claim if I can disprove a hypothesis, then the other must be true… But wait, what is the other hypothesis? Does it have any credibility?
    This is the old creationist chestnut.
    There is absolutely no reasonable inference that two (or more) hypotheses must be equally valid.
    I think the appearance of debate in science is confused with yes and no, right and wrong. Debate in science is healthy. Oh sure, it’s conducted by humans so there’s gonna be some that shout and others that pout. But fundamentally without evidence and without the ability to disprove, no-one is on the same playing field. Whereas in science everyone is working from the same established fundamentals.
    Is their belief in science? Well sure, people have ideas, then they seek to substantiate it, offer it for debate, critique, review, and sometimes where consensus is not achieved, there maybe differing camps that believe they are on the right track, but, inevitably, given time, research, acquired knowledge, improved techniques, science gives more credence to a certain hypothesis. Science is not in stasis. It’s always evolving. We don’t know everything. But we are learning. And just as we learn more there’s more that we can’t know (yet), ad infinitum. The ultimate answer is fifty years away -always!
    Is there dogma in science? – well of course, science isn’t exempt from the usual human foibles. I hate to use the word maverick (it’s insincere and over use has tainted it) but those that step outside the “accepted” norms are often those that show a new way – again, not necessarily the right way, but other avenues for other exploration. For example, the institutionalization of string theory has effectively censured any exploration of other avenues through academia for the last decade or more. (Read Lee Smolin’s excellent Trouble with Science).
    Advancement can be stultified by political (and religious) consensus too (Bush halted government funded stem cell research)…

    I don’t know why “desperately trying to save atheism from becoming a faith” is so intrinsically anathema to the goals of science, unless of course your interpretation of faith is dogmatically religious. We are humans – its in the DNA. We aren’t going to evolve out of that biological constraint just because we learnt a few things in the last couple of centuries – we’re evolving, but not that fast. Do we take some science on trust? Sure. Do we know how gravity works? Do we have to take all science on trust? Well no, but when the evidence is overwhelming, it takes something other than scientific ignorance to support our position – something like religion!

    >If we go by what we observe, then the universe looks designed.

    But if you truly look and understand the underlying science, its all perfectly explainable, with no recourse to supernatural conjecture.

    Wow, can you tell it’s a slow work day here?

  29. I was responding to the paragraph that ends with “But leave that point, it’s not much fun.” The point of that paragraph, insofar as I understood it, was to talk about the role of evidence in verifying or supporting propositions (especially negative ones). But as I suggested above, I don’t think it’s a point we ought to leave aside. I think we ought to talk about the role of evidence in verifying unobservables. (Yes, “verifying” is another misnomer, but let’s get along as best we can.)

    If I’ve read you correctly, you want to dismiss “inference to the best explanation”. However, inference to the best explanation is precisely what is involved in an argument for fine tuning. Presumably, you (nor Barrow, nor Hawking, nor anyone) have seen the literal face of God handing down details on his master plan. You’re making inferences on the basis of the evidence in order to provide support for some way of understanding a distant event. The fine tuning argument and the multiverse argument are both attempts at inference to the best explanation, although they depend on different construals of what it means to be the “best” explanation.

  30. Well, first, Emily C has tried to take the discussion somewhere a very long way from where it was, and into the landscape of her own preoccupations it seems. Returning to where we were, the world’s top physicists and philosophers have all agreed on something, though it took 20-25 years.

    All I’ve done is set out a starting point, I haven’t actually said anything yet. Maybe not worth it. It’s still about trying to get people to accept what everyone at the top of the field agrees on, whatever their view. And most of them, like you, are atheists. But unlike some of you, they’ve accepted some detail that has now been added to BOTH pictures. We’ve always had two possible pictures, but now both have new details added that would go with them. Interestingly, BOTH rule out most religious ideas, including traditional Christianity, which (as a set of ideas) fails completely on EITHER path. I haven’t had a chance to tell you anything yet – still trying to establish what’s already on the map elsewhere. I’m just trying to remind you of what we now know about both paths. Personally I think both are very much worth exploring. I don’t think the fact that multiverse theories are untestable is any barrier to exploring those ideas – they might be true. I’m one of many who have been exploring them since the ’80s, but I’ve also gone down the other path, and the intelligent thing is of course to look at both.

    But if you won’t accept the position we’ve got to, then I can’t go further here, am busy with something else now anyway. Just read the source I’ve cited above.

    What I’ve just said doesn’t apply to Benjamin, instead we just seem to have two small misunderstandings, which I’ll briefly try to sort out. When I said ‘leave that point, it’s not much fun’ I just meant that since I haven’t given you a single argument for what I actually think yet, having been instead trying to establish the existing lansdscape, then I didn’t want to go into the point about the inhabitants of the universe being left wondering about these questions deliberately – if the universe was intended. That point is no fun until you’ve heard the other points. That’s all I meant.

    About ‘inference to the best explanation’, sorry, I clearly misunderstood what you said. I still don’t really understand it, but anyway, no harm meant. I only had a rough idea of what you might mean when I mentioned it – perhaps you’d explain that.

    If you acknowledge what we’ve all now accepted – that a universe that arose by chance MUST have arisen via some sort of multiverse setup, whatever the details are, and therefore probabilistically, then I could say things that would have meaning in the context – but if not, not.

    Thanks, best wishes to all. Will have to go, I have time pressure to finish something. David

  31. No worries, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. You’ve drawn my attention to matters that I ought to pay far more attention to. I’m at Waterloo, and here you can’t throw a stone in a random direction without hitting a philosopher of physics, so I have very few excuses. For now, my ignorance forces me to withhold judgment in most respects. (Although this is a separate discussion, I only insist on the following point: that if there was a designer, they could not have been omnipotent.)

    I think I ought to do a post about inference to the best explanation. There are very rich and interesting disputes about that subject — what counts as the best explanation, where skepticism fits in, and so on. But the basic idea is just as simple as the description: when evidence of x is overwhelming, you can in principle make a legitimate inference to x. For example, nobody doubted that DNA had the structure of a double-helix for most of the 20th century, even though it wasn’t until comparatively recently that we’ve actually gotten a photo of it. They correctly inferred the structure on the basis of the evidence they had, and they were right to do so.

  32. >and into the landscape of her own preoccupations

    Gosh, you are so right!
    Sorry, I really should visit tp before going to youtube and perez hilton.
    Now look at me, visiting on the weekend no less…

  33. Well, I’ll just make one point, about what we get if we think about the idea that our universe is the only one. This is possible, and it’s the only one we can observe, so it would be odd to exclude this train of thought, though it’s not the only train of thought.

    It then looks like the laws of physics came with various things they would lead to already contained in them. These include, what we call life, intelligence, and also – perhaps surprisingly –
    humour. It now looks ‘built into’ the universe, and very important – let me explain why.

    We now think there are microbes throughout our galaxy – a range of discoveries made mostly during the ’90s, which I won’t go into much here, have made the most likely scenario one where microbes drift through the galaxy, seeding every habitable planet. It now looks like simple lifeforms like that are very common, and we now know that planets are common, having found nearly 500 since ’95. We also found the spectra of organic molecules in cluods of gas in our galaxy. So the new picture is of a bio-friendly universe, with life evolving in a lot of places. We’ve found that microbes are far tougher than we thought, and can be revived after half a million years in the permafrost, so are capable of travel on grains of dust between solar systems, pushed outwards by the light from the star. Several recent papers have pointed this out. So the idea that life started in our solar system now looks as self-centred as the early church’s dogma that the Earth was the centre of the universe.

    But what about intelligent life? Well, we’ve recently found out that the transition to intelligence has happened at least 3 times on this planet, and in species in very different situations – dolphins, elephants, us. So that transition happens comparatively easily in the universe, and probably happens a lot.

    Intelligence means detached thought, the ability to see oneself from an external viewpoint (recognising oneself in a mirror goes with it). And although more work needs to be done, it’s becoming very clear that humour goes with intelligence. Dolphins and elephants have shown humour in their mental make up. So humour seems to be a feature of the universe, and whether or not our universe is the only one, it’s a very interesting thing to find out about this universe.

    There’s no humour in religion anywhere – those grim old people didn’t think it was important. But we do now, and in the 20th century views of the world that INCLUDE humour have become much more important, such as those of Woody Allen and others. You might take them with a pinch of salt, but you’d be missing something if you did. Just as the people from all religions missed something.

    Well, they missed a lot of things in fact – they basically got large areas of it wrong. They used guilt and fear to push people around, and put lots of negatives in. Putdowns, threats and so on. But it’s worth looking at the positives that are in the universe, rather than the stupid and awful things people put into religion.

  34. David:

    I haven’t the slighest idea if you are right or wrong, but you are a very talented science writer, and I am generally allergic to science.

  35. David, I have to admit that I am skeptical of your latest post. When we say that a universe is “friendly” or “hostile” to the existence of life, we are implicitly saying something about how our universe relates to some other (possible) universe. But I don’t know whether or not life could exist in those other universes, because I don’t know if our forms of life are the only possible sort.

    On humor. I think you’ve used phrasing that is far too grandiose for the point you’re making. When you say that “humor” is “built into” the universe, you convey the sense that you’re echoing Eric Idle (in “The Road to Mars”) when he argues that levity is one of the fundamental forces of physics. But actually, if I understand you correctly, then you must admit that humor is “built into” the universe in the same way that trees are “built into” acorns. And frankly this is a pretty weird way to talk about acorns!

    Your comments on religion are well-received (though in fairness I doubt they appreciate forms of religion, like some Easterns, that use laughter as a ritual). But not entirely. Religious claims may be fungible bullshit, but at least they provide me with a means of understanding what “God” is supposed to mean. To abandon religious claims is to join Spinoza in abandoning God.

    So — let’s back up a bit. A few posts above, you presented us with a dichotomy: given the fact that the universe is finely tuned to make life possible, then either the universe is designed, or there are multiple universes. But, in the absence of a credible explanation in either direction, there’s a third option: we can say that the universe just is. Or at least, that’s what Sean Carroll ( has said, and it sounds like a pretty reasonable stance.

  36. Ben:

    Why do you say that Spinoza abandoned God?

    For once, you touch upon territory I know a bit about, and I would never say that Spinoza abandoned God.

    In his book, a Studies of Spinoza’s Ethics, Jonathan Bennett speaks of Spinoza’s theism and says: “If Spinoza and the atheist each pointed while saying, respectively, That is all God and None of that is God, they would point to the very same world.”

    Bennett continues: “Spinoza’s main reason for liking “God” as a name for the entire natural world is that the world comes closer than anything else to fitting the traditional Judaeo-Christian account of God. If God is to be infinite, eternal, not acted on by anything else, the ultimate source of everything and not susceptible of criticism by any valid standard, then God must be Nature as a whole or so Spinoza thinks.

    Of course, if God must be a person who is infinite, eternal, et cetera, then Spinoza has no candidate to offer”.

    He goes on to say: “He (Spinoza) could thus regard Nature not only as the best subject for the metaphysical descriptions applied to God in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but also as the best object of the attitudes which in that tradition are adopted towards God alone”.

    Finally, Bennett says: “If he was not “drunk with God” (as the poet Novalis said), he was obsessed with God. I am sure that he thought of himself as discovering things about God rather than revealing that there is no God”.

  37. Abandoning the theistic sense of God, as opposed to the pantheistic one. Obviously Spinoza himself preserves the language of God. But I’m approaching this from a Dawkinsean position — there’s not much of a God in that God.

  38. Just few quick points – ‘bio-friendly’ was a term used in the ’90s to describe the new view of how unexpectedly hospitable to life the universe now appears. It was seen by some as carrying too much implied theism, so people started saying ‘biophillic’ instead. But all either of them really meant was hospitable to life.

    I say humour is built-into the universe for this logical reason – if this is the only universe, and we can observe no other one, then life is built in. The very unlikely conditions needed for what we call life is built into the laws of physics. And three times on this planet life has evolved into intelligence – from the first animals, which were sea sponges, to intelligence in just 500 million years. So intelligence looks built in. And that has led to humour each time as well. So life, intelligence and humour are all built in, if this is the only universe. And we can observe no other one.

    The following is to me a disasterous attitude:

    “Religious claims may be fungible bullshit, but at least they provide me with a means of understanding what “God” is supposed to mean.”

    If you try to choose between atheism and something else, better choose the best version. Don’t do what the coward Dawkins does, and choose the worst version, then defeat it easily. That’s picking fights with dwarves. Pick on someone your own size. there are new versions of the intended universe around since 1979, when the fine tuning was put on the map – so you’d better face up to them. They’re what you must compare to atheism, not anything weaker. The old arguments have been made irrelevant by new discoveries.

  39. I understand what you’re trying to say, I think, but I don’t believe the language of “built in” is any good to convey your point. Trees aren’t built into acorns — that’s getting the story backwards. Similarly, life isn’t built into the universe, it’s built out of it.

    I agree that you have to confront the strongest of plausible interpretations of “God”. But that’s what I’m trying to do. I also think that Dawkins tried to do this in the later parts of The God Delusion, but fell somewhat short of the mark in some respects.

    I’ll gladly face up to the fine tuning arguments — and I certainly haven’t consulted that literature at any length. So that requires that I be at least a little modest. But I’m not encouraged by what has been stated here, if only because I’ve made two points (one on Caroll, the other on acorns) that have not received any attention.

  40. Well, an acorn is set up to later turn into tree, and if our universe is the only one (and we can observe no other one) then the laws of physics were set up to later turn into life. And from what we find around us on this planet, also intelligence, and humour!

    Stephen Hawking is an atheist, and he wrote in a recent article that there are three possibilities – but we all know he meant two. He said either there’s a God, or there’s the multiverse, or there’s massive coincidence.

    I haven’t read Sean Caroll’s idea that the universe ‘just is’, (but I know he’s written a book on time in which the main mystery is swept under the carpet, and he diverts the attention to the much smaller mystery of the consistent direction of the arrow of time). But the idea that the universe ‘just is’ looks like he’s supporting the idea that it was a massive coincidence, because the idea that this could happen without massive coincidence went in the ’90s. And it went for clear, specific reasons. It became clear that a theory of everything could not show that the universe just had to be the way it is. Instead, a theory of everything would have to be a theory of the multiverse, and that’s the direction they’ve been going in.

    The odds against are absolutely enormous – the universe coming into being with such an unlikely set of laws is agreed by all the world’s top thinkers to need an explanation. Attempts to wriggle out of this by twisting the anthropic principle around are over now – that was the ’80s and ’90s. If you read ‘Universe or multiverse’, you’ll find we’ve moved on.

  41. PS. I just read the bit by Sean Caroll you referred to. It’s highly misleading, and is aimed at people who know less, and tries to hide from them what people know who know more. As I said, the world’s leading physicists/philosophers have all agreed on something, including all the top atheists – but further down the ladder there are people like Caroll who try to hide what has happened from the public.

    He tries to dimiss the problem about the apparent fine tuning as wishful thinking – it isn’t.

    I must go, because this is going over old ground. People like Caroll have been trying to wriggle out of this since the ’80s, and the gullible are still fooled. Look well, my good skeptics, at Caroll’s words. They’re only convincing to the ignorant.

    Below are a few paragraphs about the real situation. Best wishes to all..


    Before 1979, when Bernard Carr and Martin Rees published the first paper on the apparent ‘fine tuning for life’, everyone assumed that the laws of physics arose randomly with the big bang – by chance (or for some people, ‘as if by chance’). No-one, whatever their view of things, thought there’d be any problem with assuming the laws might have been random.

    But it turned out that whatever view one takes, something outside our universe has to exist. We can’t make sense of the set of apparent coincidences in the laws of physics that made life possible any other way. What we call ‘life’, with its uncompromisingly complex chemistry and very slow development speed, has a set of unlikely needs. By the early ‘80s we had realised that a list of trillion to one coincidences had made life possible, without any one of which we wouldn’t be here.

    Since then, we’ve no longer been able to assume that a random set of laws appeared suddenly in a single explosion, coming out of nowhere. If a random set of laws of physics was generated every second by pressing a button, you might press it for billions of years before you’d even get stable stars and planets. Most universes generated that way would contain space and not much else – if one day you happened to get one with a bit of gas in it as well, that would be an interesting one.

    And although it’s true that if our universe hadn’t arisen, we wouldn’t be here to observe it, this doesn’t explain the coincidences. Although people further down the ladder in philosophy have tried to avoid the problem that way, all the top thinkers agree that an explanation is needed beyond simply citing the fact that we exist.

  42. PPS. Sorry if my reaction to Caroll was slightly exasperated. But it’s hard to get people to first base – the starting point – because people like Caroll will always try to draw you away from it.

    First base is where the philosophy BEGINS. The top people have got there, but with others it’s hard even to start. I’ve hardly said anything, have just been endlessly trying to get you to first base. First base is simply this:

    A. The universe was intended by some unknown intelligence.

    B. Some sort of multiverse exists, involving many universes, with widely varying laws of physics.

  43. Sure… but you won’t get me there through a few blog posts! No, the only thing I can do is consult more widely, and be skeptical in the meanwhile.

    For all I know, you really are just being dismissive of Caroll. For all I know, the consensus is actually that Hawking is a loon and that nobody cares about fine tuning. Etc. Which is to say: I don’t know. As you pointed out — rightly — I’m ignorant of the debate except in broad strokes. Hence, at this particular minute in my life, I can’t possibly be in close proximity to first base.

  44. Well that’s fair enough. You don’t have to take my word for it, when you have time, look at ‘Universe or multiverse?’. Each of them has about 10 pages – Hawking, Smolin, Davies, Rees, and about 25 others.
    Although some still try to blur the issues a bit, first base is nowadays implied throughout.

    “For all I know, you really are just being dismissve of Caroll”. True…. how can I prove to you that I’m not….? ah! yes, there’s 25 years of work on multiverse theories, including from the top physicists. If Caroll was right that the fine tuning is just wishful thinking, would they have bothered? Nope.

  45. I should get the acorn analogy out of the way. The language of “life being built in to the universe”, when taken literally, asks us to infer teleology from causal determinism. But I see no reason to do that; it’s over-explaining something we can explain in more traditional terms. And when the language of “life… built into the universe” is taken metaphorically, it provides no leverage in favor of design.

    Anyway, about your main point. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t want to sound strident or dogmatic when I’m really just ignorant and skeptical about the recent debates in cosmology. So I’m not taking Sean Caroll as the grand pubah of physics, and am certainly interested in knowing if his opinion is in the minority. And I’m also naive and ignorant enough about the physics involved in cosmology that recent developments from other big names — Penrose, for instance ( — push me further into a state of equanimity.

    Still, I understand that that’s beside the point you want to make, since you only want to show what the consensus is. That’s fine enough — information received! I’ll most definitely check out your recommendation, with thanks.

  46. Well that’s fine – but “you only want to show what the consensus is” is not true.

    I’ve been trying to tell you about the present situation in philosophy. Sean Caroll knows about it, but he doesn’t want the public to. We all know about it within physics. The multiverse theories of the last 25 years are a reaction to it, and M theory has become a multiverse theory too – that’s what Hawking’s article in The Times newspaper in August was about, and how he thinks M theory will become the theory of everything.

    Because this is a philosophy site, I started out expecting you to know about it, thought it would make a change from the members of the public I talk to sometimes. And in fact only found out quite recently that you didn’t. It’s not a crime not to know about it, and there’s no conspiracy to keep it from the public. It’s there to be found in the literature, if you read the philosophy of science (and without knowing the science side, philosophy is like detective work without seeing the latest clues).

    But because some totally stupid creationists have become vociferous in America, there’s a reluctance to hand them any apparent advantage. A battle like that polarises the two sides, and no-one is prepared to move around at all. And someone once said “In war, the first casualty is truth”. Well that’s why people on a philosophy site don’t know what’s going on in philosophy.

    Best wishes, enjoyed talking with you.

    Oh yes, about the acorn. I didn’t mean a direct analogy between the universe and the acorn, but loosely speaking there was one. In philosophy we can see only two possibilities now. They’re the two set out in what I called ‘first base’ above. One has the laws of physics intended – set up to allow life to evolve later, the other has the laws of physics arising probabilistically. It’s certainly one or the other.

    Athism requires the second possibility, the multiverse one. In fact, during the ’90s millions of informed atheists made the switch, and quietly became believers in the multiverse. These things are quite well known, but within the scientific community.

  47. PS. sorry my friend, final post. I just read the article about Penrose, it’s a good example of what skeptics need to be skeptical about. By the way, I’m a big admirer of Penrose and his work.

    But the article is about the discovery of something unexplained. Whenever they discover something unexplained, they decide what they think it might be, and then the journalists write “evidence for … discovered”. It isn’t. What they’ve discovered is that the CMB anisotropies are not completely random. And that, I can tell you, (though the article won’t), threatens inflation theory. Inflation theory predicts that the CMB should be completely random.

    But they found concentric circles with lower temperature variation. The article says:

    “Because of the great significance of these little circles, the scientists will do further work to confirm their existence and see which models can best explain them.”

    I think that tells you what you need to know about that – they don’t know what it is. The model they’ve tried to fit it to is enormously loose fitting, not just there but everywhere, and has major problems elsewhere. But it means inflation may be wrong, and is interesting reading. cheerio, DM
    stay skeptical…!

  48. Yeah, it’s bullshit. There is no point in arguing with the theo-logically inclined since their version of evidence is that everything that cannot be proven is a fact.

    It works itself out in their favor every time so it’s kind of an oxymoron in the sense that you could prove atheism wrong if you proved that everything that cannot be proven is a fact.

    I don’t even know if that made any sense.

  49. I’m on board with Sandra.
    It’s the “two sides of the coin” argument, when in fact the other side is not religion (or in the case of evolution, intelligent design/creationism) but another scientific theory.
    Just because you have a pet theory that opposes another, does not mean it has equal weight or indeed any merit whatsoever. (
    There is no debate when one side has recourse to supernature [wiki:- The supernatural or supranatural (Latin: super, supra “above” + natura “nature”) is anything above or beyond what one holds to be natural or exists outside natural law and the observable universe.]
    There is no proof (or disproof) of gods, or disproof of science, within nature. If you live your life entirely in the supernatural, you can have as many gods as you like, or one, or you could be your own god, but in the natural world, this is called delusion.
    I hate to throw this in the face of believers but isn’t 90% of the USA supposed to be “religious”? How come the nation is so irreligious? I mean it should be a perfect place, no? That is, apart from the 10% of us running around spreading anarchy and science…

  50. I disagree! Things don’t work out in their favor each time you prove them wrong. It might feel that way, in a rhetorical sense. But with each demonstration that they’re not tracking the facts, you have a stronger and stronger case against them. The best explanation of their constant errors is that they’re talking about something that’s fictitious. I have a hard time seeing how this makes them immune from evidence.

    I made a point about the supernatural and observation in one of my replies above… I don’t think it’s legitimate to conflate “supernatural” with “beyond evidence”.

  51. Benjamin, how exactly do you track pseudo-facts?

  52. A decent place to begin is by interpreting their claims as factual in every plausible way, and then showing them false or unverifiable each time. If they (the bullshitters) keep changing goalposts in order to make sense of their own claims, that’s not something that makes them look good — quite the opposite, since the best explanation of the evidence shows that they’re entertaining a falsehood. (Putting aside David’s objection for the moment.) In principle, it’s not very hard to do — it’s no more difficult than picking up a Sherlock Holmes novel, finding out Holmes’s address, and looking up the London public records to see if anyone by his description ever lived on Baker St.

    So you keep doing this until finally you reach a point where they say something like: “God is necessarily unprovable”, or “God is unexplainable”, etc. Once they say that, then you try to interpret them as saying non-factual things. So, for instance, some people make religious claims as a way of saying, “I’m part of the tribe that calls itself The Catholics”, as an identity claim. And some people make religious claims as a way of telling moral allegories. And then you respond on those terms: e.g., show that the allegory is morally false and wicked, under every plausible interpretation.

    And it goes on, until you finally reach a point where they say: “God is love” or some other neat and primitive reduction that you can fit on a bumper sticker. The message they’re trying to get across is something like, “God makes me feel happy”. In effect, you’ll have reduced them to the point where they admit that belief in God is a form of therapy. And if you’re a hard-core atheist, then you tell them a story about why belief in God makes people miserable.

  53. So then you actually do agree, it is bullshit.

    I think you meandered down the same theo-logical thought process which assumes that because theo-logically inclined people will discredit themselves by changing the objective as they see fit, you assume that atheist also do that.

    Saying that atheist will counter with a story about how god makes them feel miserable because they say god makes them feel good, don’t hold the same weight.

    Because, it assumes that they needed god to be happy, atheist can assume that their belief in it also made them miserable.

    Since they won’t accept anything that doesn’t come from the Bible as factual, pointing out that (IDK) Romans (chapt. 3 I think) tells them that in order for there to be good they must do what is bad and in that story, King David also states that they do lie to glorify their god.

    So, again the bullshit works out in their favor in as much as “the bible told them so” they will believe that lying is justified therefor, calling them liars is justified if you are an atheist.

    So as an atheist, I was proven wrong based on bullshit, ie; you can’t call them liars for lying because the bible said they are liars but they aren’t liars because they are supposed to be liars.

    pure bullshit.

  54. Yes. That’s why I said “it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, the principle of bullshit is correct — religious sentences, when taken on the whole, don’t know whether they’re coming or going.” See?

    Atheism is judged by the same standards that we apply to the theist. The difference is that with atheism (naturalism) you get a pretty good explanation of how the universe works. With theism you get an uncountable series of bad explanations. Shorter: you apply the same standard to both, but only one comes out on top.

    You’re right to say that there’s a sense in which theists benefit from bullshit, for more or less the reasons you point out. I would add that they benefit from self-professed bullshit because it lets them transform an attitude of “pick and choose” into a standard operating procedure.

    But notice, the only thing they get is rhetorical points. This is about what they know, what we “prove” (justifiably infer). And I think there’s no contest, as far as that goes.

  55. I would disagree it is all bullshit and that religions do not include humour.

    Considering the Christian Bible as a community effort whilst applying various views during a close reading, for example to the Book of Kings, and a number of interpretations can easily been seen, which when taken as a whole are inclusive and supportive of many ways of living and being, although not fully understood when viewed from only a single perspective.

    Do those texts illustrate history, support for freedom of conscience (in a religious text?), differing philosophical approaches, a social privacy mechanism, inclusive love exhibited by an expansionist religious faith, a feminist method of dealing with the ageing process within a relationship, a means of supporting the living by manipulating emotions in a humane way through the generations, any other potential interpretation, or, merely exhibit sexuality in the raw? Whatever was meant or is today interpreted that was written in an inclusive and understanding way and it certainly indicates earlier attempts at openly managing differing moral/ethical outlooks privately within one communal social sphere. Hence privacy socially exhibits a strong presence in the same context then as today, at least during the compilation period of those particular texts. I imagine most religious texts will contain similar multiplicity in various areas, which I agree are then refined and shit upon as they are interpreted or refined, in a similar way to legal regulations or science today. A mixture like any other to be looked upon for what it contains rather than what the surface consists of.

    A problem that that writing and many rhetorical methods exhibit throughout history and different social groupings, is they are seen to a large extent as elitist in composition and practice, although mostly generally freely open to entry by those willing to think for themselves rather than being swayed by the machinations of others. Like the Uriah Heap collection of songs, not very captivating but interesting in the choice and presentation of content.

    Anyway it appears to me that given those contexts and this thread, which could not be likened to even the Lolcat Bible and other social networking site discussions which may facilitate the presentation of paradoxically perceived values whilst accepting each for the value they contribute because of the potential to interpret differently, and a neutured philosophy of science becomes as clear as any strict religious viewpoint.

    I agree that bullshit in the eye of the interpreter seems to be a difficulty when conflicting values are discussed; but should that mean an annihilation of language in its purer forms, however presented, in order to impose the values of another. Being another rather tolerant and liberal atheist I think it is like many things only statically differentiated.

    Some years ago an ill relative being cared for observed to me, “all the wine bottles have screw tops these days” and yes they do, as do most bottles of all shapes and sizes nowadays; Something which I think pretty well sizes up much of the impact of information technology and the worldwide web. It does rather seem that there is a need to move away from only screw tops, without using only corks (even though they maybe seen as a sustainable source); Besides, wine in boxes could be even cheaper if the value of money became more valueless.

  56. Ian, I would say that if a text supports multiple inconsistent readings on core points, then it meets the definition of bullshit as I meant it here. And sure enough (although I cannot speak to the Book of Kings example in particular), I agree with you that Judeo-Christian texts in general do support multiple readings. So your appeals on behalf of inclusivity make the point about bullshit quite a bit more roundly than I ever could have.

    I don’t find the appeal on behalf of community authorship to be terribly compelling. Consider Wikipedia: it takes pains to make sure that each wiki is consistent, or flagged as inconsistent and disreputable. Or consider your example of law: it is meant to be written as a coherent never-ending story, and every effort is made to constrain it according to precedent. So the corporate/individual authorship claim is a red herring. And so it follows that the matter of elitism/populism is just as irrelevant: law and Wikipedia are both relatively coherent, despite being at different parts of the elite/populist spectrum.

    I don’t think I’m dismissing the Books just because I read them in various inconsistent ways. I think I’m dismissing them because lots of people do, including yourself. Does the realization that religious claims, statements, and sentences are bullshit entail that language is “annihilated” in its purer forms? e.g., does my claim that “religious claims are bullshit” entail that there is no reliable range of legitimate interpretations of necessary and sufficient conditions? Definitely, no question. Bullshit claims are unreliable, and only have meaning in an impure sense.

    But you imply that the truth of the principle of bullshit would entail the imposition of one value-system over another. I think this claim is puzzling, and I don’t see why it follows.

    Also, I don’t understand the analogy in the final paragraph.

  57. Bullshit. Rhetorical arguments by definition require one argument to be sustainably better than another. When debating ethical/moral/human values that means an imposition on the whole. When debating scientifically that means one result must be better than another. Nietzsche’s superman can maintain an illusion like that and yet often be misinterpreted and misrepresented.

    Using the excellent examples you provided within your second paragraph, purity destroys itself by refinement within the human condition, so should purity be an objective for living by, or an objective for thinking by in certain contexts rather than imposing across all contexts? Can purity contain anything other than itself?

    Language as a social mechanism which facilitates communications between different beings will be open to different interpretations. If forms of language are impure then any communication can only be bullshit. Art also communicates differing values within one object – is art impure? Define the use of impurity so the purity of your question may be more easily understood.

    Hopefully you will understand the analogy eventually.

    You failed to respond to the humorous element.

    I could agree with the view that life can be seen as bullshit, but hey, considering the history of the world soil must contain dinosaur dung and I suppose bull dinosaurs existed.

  58. Your style is a bit oracular, so I’ll have to try my best to answer. Hopefully I’ll get to what you mean. Tell me if I don’t.

    Right — well, it’s true that once you realize that the principle of bullshit is true, the rhetorical force of religious interpretations is diminished. But that’s the opposite of “imposing” a value-system in any interesting sense, it’s giving people the ability to choose value-systems for themselves.

    I don’t think that the pursuit of perfection or the ideal is something you always have to strive for in all contexts. Sometimes, the ideal isn’t worth striving for. But I do think that we ought to be clear about the things that are important to us, and we ought to be clear when we talk to each other about what we mean. That doesn’t mean you have to achieve perfection (since that’s impossible), it just means you have to give it your best shot.

    Yes, many works of art are bullshit in the sense we’re talking about. Also, yes, all communication is on a continuum — messages are more or less bullshit. To answer your question, I said above that by bullshit I mean “has no reliable range of legitimate interpretations of necessary and sufficient conditions”.

    Thanks for your encouragement, but I doubt very much that I’ll understand your analogy any better with time. I need you to elaborate on what information technology has to do with wine corks, and what either of them have to do with the subject of the conversation.

    I thought of responding to the humor element, but decided not to, since you didn’t concentrate on it. Also, I don’t think that religions are humorless. Laughing yoga, for example. Another example: Jesus of Revelations comes back as an albino firey-eyed brass-footed demon with a sword sticking out of his mouth. That image itself is pure comedy.

  59. For Ian, definition of rhetorical,

    a : of, relating to, or concerned with rhetoric
    b : employed for rhetorical effect; especially : asked merely for effect with no answer expected
    a : given to rhetoric : grandiloquent
    b : verbal
    — rhe·tor·i·cal·ly

    See also rhetoric, in short means speech that (not a speech) designed to persuade you by “feelings”.

    Rhetorical arguments actually do NOT require “one argument to be better than the other”, they require no argument at all.

    You also seem “assbackwards”, (to use a little humor) you said, “purity destroys itself by refinement within the human condition,”

    Actually, refinement would be a requirement to make something impure, pure again, NOT to make something pure, impure.

    You asked, “Can purity contain anything other than itself?” I do believe that the truest concept of purity would be to be completely VOID of anything at all, to add anything to it would render it impure.

    For instance, the color black. Common wisdom says that black is the rendering of all colors combined and white is the absence of color.

    However, we know it is not true but the other way around. White is the make up of all color and black is the absence of color therefor making the color black the purest “color” there is.

    You should come over to the darkside, over here we can see the light. ;D

    I have often come across religious types who seem to believe that they can change the meaning of words so that they imply their theo-“lovable” meanings just as they often change the interpretations of the Bible so that it fits into whatever debate they engage in.

    People who defend the Bible as the truth debate with rhetoric, not facts which does make it bullshit.

    Have you ever looked up the word “meek”, you should. Taking advantage of people who are meek is not a good deed, it’s taking advantage of people in a vulnerable state.

    How many “recruits” do you believe any religion would have if everyone was happy just the way they were? Not very many is my guess.

    So, they lay in wait for wounded sheep because it is easier to heal someone weak then it is to fix what is NOT broken.

    Do you think it is right to take advantage of people’s weaknesses?

  60. Benjamin,

    If you agree that giving people the ability to choose value systems for themselves; or could that equally be allowing them to understand all available information. If so then we would be in agreement as fully understanding what is said by another is what I am saying.

    There are many imposing methods. If you create interest in a subject, and an individual researches that subject in order to find out more information as a means of informing themselves then that would be allowing freedom of thought. If on the other hand you provided the individual with a pure subject allowing of no interpretation and expected them on faith to accept that and only that, that would be imposing. In the sense of a pursuit of perfection or ideal being strived for in all contexts which would be bullshit in itself then yes, it would fit; But I fail to see where motivation could maintain existence within that interpretation, which would only leave the shot of the best as it were. My own conclusion would be that aspirations do not seem to fit well there leaving only other directions to impose themselves.

    “, I said above that by bullshit I mean “has no reliable range of legitimate interpretations of necessary and sufficient conditions”.”
    To me that seems to indicate a lack of knowledge exists in the area in question which needs to be questioned in order to make available some legitimate interpretation. An opportunity for furthering knowledge or developing oneself as it were.

    The debate is based upon the atheism v religion. Interpreting religious belief as a dogmatic attachment derived from faith and questioning the less than obvious becomes a real encouragement. Humour is difficult to easily explain with much being lost in any explanation. Screw tops = ideas or actions received as imposed, the rest seems to follow on from that. As stated previously in various ways in the eye of the beholder…

    The humour element appeared as an important dead end. Religious types could perceive atheist thought as humorous, atheists could perceive religious thought humorous whereas agnostics always questioning would be seen as humorous by both of the others. 🙂 Your joke sounds just like some images of imposed Mohammedian thought, only in that circumstance he would be saying life is all bullshit.

  61. Sandra,

    Thank you for the dictionary definitions, there is always benefit in receiving the different ones provided by many other dictionaries.

    Your pure description of purity does provide much insight into one perspective. Yes it is feasible to see the light clearly from in the dark. When looking around in the dark my experience suggested that the focus can generally end up only being on the light, and so failing to see what exists within the dark. Surely seeing both clearly is a necessary.

    We agree that nothing would be completely void.

    Religious thoughts in colour! I will have look for my old black and white woollen cardigan with the holes in it. We agree that many visual things we call colour exist, but going beyond that immediate understanding colours the picture more roundly.

    Religious types do take advantage of the meek, once more we agree, but your medicinal healing and physical mending analogy is somewhat at odds with what many religious types would espouse.

    Although to use an example — I once had a look at the online networking site 4chan, where a great deal of conversation is conducted visually using images. Whilst I was looking at 4chan a pornographic image of a female with her legs spread wide apart showing her all was used in one conversation to indicate school was open. Objectionable as that image may be when seen from many perspectives, including some bullshit ones, in the context used it did form a pure communication to the intended recipients which was clearly understood by them.

    I guess the meek would shy away from understanding those types of communication, but none the less communications they remain. Religious types of many persuasions will no doubt deny that, but hey, that is their right understanding as formed within the context of their historically formed world views, and if they choose not to broaden their own comprehension when alternative perspectives exist everywhere, that is their own choice.

    Thank you for the invite to come over to the darkside but many would appear to have been there before and only been dazzled like rabbits by the beauty of the light.

  62. Ian, perhaps this will help: the claims can be bullshit regardless of whether or not any particular person interprets them as such. Few people consciously say to themselves, “I’m going to say a lot of nonsense today”. So that’s not really what was meant to be under discussion. But even for those people who did engage in intentional bullshit — for example, Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of faith-claims as apophatic — the only thing they’d be “imposing” is uncertainty. So your point remains as puzzling as ever.

    It’s true that bullshit claims can indicate a lack of knowledge. But they can also indicate other things: a lack of care towards the subject, or a lack of self-consciousness about what one means.

    The question, “Are religious claims bullshit?”, is independent is the debate over atheism and religion. It’s more of a sociological question.

    And notice that saying, “Religious claims are bullshit”, is not quite the same as saying that religious claims are dogmas. They can be mantras, uttered for merely therapeutic purposes.

  63. Ian, you missed the point completely. Will leave it at that. It’s part of the bullshit that religions use to “enslave” people to a certain bullshit train of thought.

    When it comes to understanding and the mind trap religions play, it most usually renders their mind incapable of understanding things like, IDK evolution.

    If part of the religious rhetoric is to impose a world view, then it terrifies the sheep to leave that in fear of what their family and friends and their god will do to them.

    They start indoctrinating as young as they can so that by the time they are able to articulate their own thoughts, it has already been drilled into them that if they don’t believe in god, they will go to hell.

    It’s a very hard thing for many people to leave because they really, really believe it is the truth.

    That is not objective thought. It is so subjective that any desire to ‘step outside the cave’ overwhelms them with guilt and fear.

    They say things like, “has god ever let you down?” the prospect might say something like, “I suppose not, I am still here.”

    Most also have never read the whole Bible, if they had they would find it questionable, so instead they do “bible study”, to ensure that you see their perspective and not “question the good Lord”, lol.

    If you truly understood the color analogy, you wouldn’t have understood that “religious thought is in color” to be a good thing.

    Had you understood my invite, lol, you would “see” that religion is impure, much like bullshit.

    One of the meanings for meek is also, “spiritless”. Christian dogma insist that people be given the holy spirit. In a lot of cases, religious folks do not understand spirituality outside of “having invited the lord into their hearts”, if you ask them, they describe being spiritual as being ritualistic or expressing their adulation for JC.

    It’s not so much a person’s unwillingness to understand, it’s their inability to understand that if they do, they will be okay.

    Besides that, how many times can the all loving god commit murder, convince people to murder, stone woman, make kings who throw woman and children into lions dens and then promise to come back and gobble up the “unbelievers” alive and throw them into a fiery pit of hell for ever and ever to be tortured with no relief for eternity, and still be considered loving?

    The religious premise is, “if you don’t believe in me I will kill you.”

    Most will believe using the “understanding” that, “if I don’t then I lose but if I do then I lose nothing.”

    Also, I said that for something to be “pure” it would be VOID. You indicate that nothing is pure. Using that “logic”, it wouldn’t really be logical to pursue a life of becoming “pure”.

    I do suppose however, in hindsight that the lack of “knowledge” in the religious realm is pretty empty. 😀 lol, it’s like a divine laxative.

  64. Benjamin,

    We appear to have a consensus which did not originally exist; for a communication to be correctly received requires a rounded understanding from all sides to engender pure understanding. Clearly what is needed is a common entry point upon which to build an understanding.

    Interesting that lack of care issue; research notes made previously illustrate the same facet as confirming part of the privacy mechanism in the sense of intrusions/morality/ethics//integrity/good manners. Strangers in the night as it were, seeking to understand the different contexts (that is in the old fashioned way rather than being just another newfangled text) of boundary mechanisms and interpretations of group membership by individuals. Sian is drawn to mind for no good reason, but I suppose that is to do with what the feminists term as ‘that man thing getting in the way again, or, boys and their toys’. I guess it is similar to the difference between semantics and the theory of language, understanding in one begins an understanding in the other.

    Thank you for the discussion. It has been helpful for me and not immediately flaccid. I apologise if my abruptness has felt like rape but that is probably because I do not improve over the years.

    I am so obviously yours that I will draw to a close now.

    Happy Holidays

  65. Sandra,

    Paradoxically, colour may be viewed from many perspectives, which is what seemed to be said.

    Laxative, yes, but they are contextually useful.

    Thank you for your concern. I am not religious, as indicated previously I am an amused atheist who holistically questions different perspectives, not an agnostic who does not yet know whether to know or to be. So in that sense leaving you and Benjamin to confer with each other about religious thought would seem to be the correct thing for me to do right now if progress is to be made.

    Thank you for coming out and joining in.

    Happy Holidays.

  66. Ian, not quite. The point that you mention was never raised for discussion, so there was never any disagreement over it.

    But I can see why you’d think that — there’s a vital distinction we have to make along the way that I had taken for granted. There’s a difference between what is communicated by some message, and what is required in order to communicate the message. e.g., When I say that religious claims are bullshit, I am referring to what gets communicated. By contrast, it is arguably the case that all messages, clear and muddled alike, presuppose more humble beginnings — namely, as overlapping sets of vague and dimly informed inferences about what one’s interlocutors are talking about.

    To put the matter starkly, the difference in this case is that some muddle-talk grows up into real live discussion. On the other hand, other kinds of muddle-talk have an arrested development.

    Incidentally, your comment about “rape” is bizarre interpretation of what I thought was a relatively pleasant conversation. But regardless, happy holidays to you too!

  67. Gunterlee Gunter

    for me i guess i would have to ask the atheist a question if it could be proven that there is an energy that connects each human to each other and each rock to each human to each particle to each planet would you at least consider that to be “god” and if so then you are not an atheist

    now to continue on this i think we all remember in science class where they taught us the human body is 75% water well that is complete and total bullshit whichg they also taught us but most of us didnt put 2&2 together

    75% of the particles in the human body make up the water molecule that is true but 99.9999999999999999 (and so on) % of the human body is “empty space” between those particles now if we asume that the “empty space” is god well then by god jesus was right we are all gods

    and haveing said that i do not believe in the bible or any other “religion” but i do think they all have something to teach us about ourselves

  68. Gunterlee, let’s suppose there is such a force. Well, really, let’s suppose there are four of them: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the electromagnetic force, and gravity. They connect us all, they run through all living and inorganic matter, etc. Are these gods?

  69. Gunterlee Gunter

    exactly i guess my whole point is a christian has as much validity as a budists as a muslim as a an atheist i think people need to make up there own mind and not listen to others

    although you make an extremely valid and excelent point that blow any and all religions to pieces that isn’t even close to what im talking about

  70. I think people need to be reasonable, which means they need to be prepared to listen to (and be responsive to) others if they expect to be heard.

    Also, I think that a perspective has to be based on something besides wishful thinking in order for it to be valid.

  71. Happy new year… You ought to know what I think, didn’t say the main points, I spent my whole time trying tying to convince you of what the well-known landscape in current philosophy is. (what I called ‘first base’) I came to a philospshy site expecting to find people who know that landscape, but no… Anyway, no matter, read the book I mentioned (universe or multiverse) if you need convincing.

    Some see it as the most important book of the 21st century so far, as it has all the top thinkers putting their recent views on the new questions.

    Anyway, it involves two general views of the universe, which to me are both entirely valid. So I’m not trying to tilt the playing field, as someone implied. The new landscape is that each view now has some details attached, we’ve managed to narrow both scenarios down. If you’re actually interested in philosophy, which you may be, then don’t put your heads in the sand! look at the new clues.

    The two views are 1. the universe arose by chance, and 2. some sort of intention was behind it.

    Neither of these requires religion to be right, or even relevant. It’s possible for both sides of an argument to be wrong, and I think many long standing arguments have exactly that. For instance, they argued for decades about where the ‘ether’ existed in physics, and both sides turned out to be wrong. (The thing they disagreed about was very far from the truth, and irrelevant. It neither existed nor didn’t exist – something else did that was very different. Instead it turned out that space vibrates as light travels through it, and space has some properties that resemble the old idea of an ‘ether’ but others that don’t at all.)

    Both sides of this argument made the foolish mistake of assuming that a particular concept either existed or didn’t. That assumption was wrong. Instead the concept was a red herring, and each side started reacting to the other side’s view, obscuring the real picture.

    My view is that so far all existing views of the world are wrong. Many people assume that one of our existing views must be right, but that assumption is very mistaken. The highly respected physicist/philosopher Barrow has put forward the view that we may be living in a computer simulation (see the cited source above), and has used this as a way to explain the ‘coincidences’ in the laws of physics. He suggested we look for bugs in the system, or economies made due to limited computing power, to test this idea. I don’t agree with him, I just mention this to underline the point that religion is irrelevant to the discussion now. Even if there had never been any religion on this planet, we’d still be looking at this same conundrum now, and we’d still have to ask the same questions.

    Read ‘Universe or multiverse’, then look at the questions without reacting to irrelevant stupid religious views, which is what you’re doing. Many of those views are now ruled out by new evidence anyway.

    What you’re doing is equivalent to throwing out the aims and principles of modern medicine, just because early medicine was a load of nonsense, leeches, and quackery. You are reacting to views that are outdated anyway, and that’s no way to form a view.

  72. Hello David, happy new year to you too.

    Indeed, part of the problem is my ignorance of the current state of the philosophy of physics — to put it mildly. And at the end of the day, that can only be rectified by my doing my homework (e.g., by reading “Universe or Multiverse”). It’s expensive for a grad student (70$ all told), but I’ll order it on Amazon anyway.

    But in the interim, I have to confess feeling a bit discouraged. The response to Caroll, for instance, struck me as curt and dismissive. And concerning your claims about the current state of the field in mind — over the past month, I’ve asked two professional philosophers of physics about your claims (both members of the Perimeter Institute), and it was all news to them. So something just doesn’t fit.

    At any rate, the one thing we do agree on is that religious claims can be disproven (or, at any rate, explained away). So the thing to ask about is the relationship between the rejection of religious claims and the logical implication that atheism is true.

    I’m especially interested in how you’ve presented the aether problem — that arguments for the non-existence of aether are mistaken, simply because the concept of “aether” is a red herring. This is actually an argument that I find attractive, despite the fact that (if it were correct) then the implication would be that my post above is wrong.

    And it really depends on what you think about bivalence. I’m one of those people who is willing to junk the principle of bivalence, if we thought that doing so would suit a great many of our purposes. So your argument has some plausibility to it. The question is: under what conditions do we say that a proposition is neither true nor false, and is just plain irrelevant?

    Take the following proposition: “My 1-year-old nephew is an atheist.” Well, that seems neither true nor false, in something like the way you describe the aether case. My nephew has neither thought about the subject of the divine nor has he cared to think about it, which suggests that neither the concept of “atheist” nor the concept of “theist” are even appropriate to use. Similarly, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use the concept to describe the mental-states of full-grown adults that have never spent any time thinking about the issue.

    But I don’t think this bears any resemblance to the aether case. Presumably, those who rejected aether had considered opinions, and they cared enough about their subject to make their positions plain. So I don’t see any point in rejecting the negation of “‘Aether is real'”, just because “aether” is a red herring. It seems to me that that’s a case where you can, in all consistency, say that the claim “Aether is real” is a red herring, while also saying that it is false.

  73. Hello Benjamin, good to hear from you again. I’m sorry, we seem to have one or two misunderstandings, and also some interesting points. I’ll go to the aether first, which is perhaps easier and with more common ground.

    I just meant to make an analogy between two arguments in which I think both sides were wrong. In physics, for instance, before we get a clear picture, we get a blurred one. At that earlier stage, with just a few clues, we might have an idea like the aether that is very far from the truth, but it’s a little bit like the truth. It becomes a red herring, because in the arguments about it both sides become entrenched and polarised in their views, each reacting to the other.

    Instead of assuming that this idea has to either exist or not exist, we should simply look at the clues, and throw out any and all assumptions.

    I think the idea of ‘God’, or what people tend to mean when they use the word, is like the aether was. It’s a red herring because like the aether it’s too far from what might exist to be relevant. And yet millions of people feel that the only question is whether or not ‘God’ exists.

    But it’s not that they get the wrong answer, it’s that they’re asking the wrong question. And it has no answer, because it’s full of false assumptions, above all, assumptions about what a designing intelligence would be like if it existed. We should make no such assumptions when looking at these questions.

    This point is made neatly and brilliantly in the book ‘Catch 22’, in which they discuss what the God they don’t believe in is like. He describes the God he doesn’t believe in, and then she says “oh no, the God I don’t believe in is kind! he’s etc etc”.
    The point is – if you’re looking at a question, make no assumptions at all about what the answer might be before you start looking. This is just a basic discipline, and we do it because assumptions hold us back, and assumptions often turn out to be wrong, in physics and in other areas.

    This leads me to the other point. As you can see, I don’t think we should assume anything to be true or false at the starting point. So saying that religious claims can be ‘disproved’ is very odd. It’s such a wishy-washy area that nothing can be proved or disproved easily and you shouldn’t go there. it’s largely irrelevant anyway. Yes, I know you have some very annoying religious people in America, but just ignore them, don’t react. Not if you’re interested in philosophy. What they’re saying should not be mistaken for philosophy, and it should not be allowed to mess up philosophy either.

    But if we must discuss religion, well… that’s just the thinking side, philosophy is. There’s a ‘feeling side’ as well in religion, which I didn’t expect to discuss on a philosophy website.

    You can tell that the thinking side of religion is generally nonsense and totally unreliable by seeing how much the religions disagree with each other. They’re all culturally parallel, so their disagreement means the rational mind is obviously getting nothing very useful.

    But they all agree about abstract feeling in the ‘heart’ – which probably means what we now call the subconscious mind. ‘Abstract’ means without words attached, which means inaccesible to the rational mind. So perhaps they all get something worthwhile, the same thing whatever it is, but which they can’t understand. So the rational mind then gets in there and tries to explain it by making things up. It adds stuff from the culture, mentality and social rules of the time and place. And then other layers get added, and religion is often hijacked and used as a source of power, to push people around, or keep them in line. So it gets filled with putdowns and threats, and some very nasty stuff. Right now we’re in the process of shaking off a lot of that old stuff that has been handed down to us, and it did a lot of psychological damage. But we shouldn’t let the natural angry reactions to it mess up our thinking. The only bit that might be valuable in religion is not about thinking anyway. Hope that makes sense.

  74. Forgot to mention Carroll. I’m sorry you found my response to his words dismissive. I was amazed to read them. I’ve since thought I’d quote them as an excellent example of how physicists sometimes try to mislead the public.

    Carroll knows about the situation in philosophy, it’s incredible that he thinks he can get away with talking as if it didn’t exist. The reason he has become lax enough to do that is that most opponents he has in that area are not very bright (to put it politely), or fear for their jobs, so some writers have become lazy and complacent.

    There are many books by respected physicists that set out the main issues – it’s well-known.

    And it’s admitted by both sides, at the top of the field. The dishonesty is further down the ladder. Everyone knows that we can’t have the universe just coming into being as it is without some explanation for the apparent coincidences in the laws of physics. There are different explanations, and many mulitverse theories that were designed to explain it, such as Lee Smolin’s baby universes etc. but no-one denies that an explanation is needed. Except a few dishonest ones, who talk only to the public. Anyway, sorry if you thought my reaction wasn’t appropriate.

  75. PS.. and about the people you asked – it depends very much on how you phrase the question. Try asking someone (not the same ones!) this: “do multiverse theories explain the apparent coincidences in the laws of physics?” They may well say yes.

    But if instead you say “are multiverse theories the only way we have of explaining the apparent coincidences in the laws of physics, assuming that the universe arose by chance?”, they may well avoid the question, because multiverse theories are considered by many to be untestable (though it’s controversial), and that creates what they see as a major problem.

    But it’s not – it’s just people trying to find out about the universe as usual, and as always with one lot holding the process back, and another lot pushing the process forward.

  76. I’ll put my responses to these points back-to-front.

    When asking folks what they thought, I tried to state the question in very neutral terms. In one email, I asked your question ver batim: “A blogger has recently argued that we have to make sense of the universe either as designed by a maker, or as one within a multiverse. [You] said: “During the ’90s all 3rd way arguments started to look no good, and the book published in ‘07 (the proceedings of two conferences on the fine tuning) shows some of the world’s top thinkers all agreed that if the universe came about by chance then some sort of multiverse theory would be needed to explain it.” I was wondering — is that true?”

    I don’t doubt that multiverse theories are consistent with the laws of physics — there’s no need for a poll on that. The questions (I take it) are: “What explanations (if any) are viable? Which explanations are looking like the best ones?” And on the basis of the replies I’ve gotten, I’m getting a sense that there are strong reasons to support multiverse theory — along with some persistent, nagging doubts.

    Like Kuhn, I have a lot of respect for the repressive curmudgeonly conservatives who are “holding us back” with their skepticism. But I also have a lot of respect for physicists on the frontiers, using their imagination and their wits to push the boundaries. To use a corny analogy, both the hot molten iron and the stubborn old anvil have a role to play in making an excellent blade. And so far as I know, Caroll is one of the anvils. But I’ll have to investigate further, relying on the modest means that I have at my disposal, full well knowing that I’m lumbering behind like a fat old bear chasing a team of sprightly campers with a million mile head start.

    If you were right about the aether (and I’m not sure you are), then I have to know — why aren’t we in the same situation when it comes to our attempts to explain the origins of the Big Bang? It might be that our theories are not even wrong — perhaps they’re all red herrings, predicated on assumptions that can’t be borne out. So we talk in terms of these weird metaphors, of strings and branes and Other Universes, and we might not really be coming any closer to the truth, because they employ these homely workaday images that we have no business using.

    Your example from Catch-22 is very useful, since it actually helps to explain how I argued (above) that atheism can be proven wrong. Just take the cast of characters from Heller’s novel, and pretend that there are so many of them that they are infinite in number. Now have each of them explain the God they don’t believe in, and go and check. If all those Gods are non-existent, then you have verified atheism. If only one of them is correct, then you’ve disproven atheism. That’s essentially how (in principle) you can disprove bullshit claims, along with clear ones: with an infinite supply of interpretations and the patience to get through them. (Aside: this strategy of argument owes a lot to what has been called the semantics of “supervaluationism”.)

    In principle, I’m happy to discuss all the different ways of interpreting religious claims, including the bare emotional ones. It’s all very interesting. But that can go very far afield from the topic of this post.

  77. Hello Ben:

    This subject is so interesting, that I, for one, suggest that you do another post about it.

    Thank you.

  78. Amos, eventually I’ll be sure give a modest dilettentish report on Hawking’s latest, along with Universe or Multiverse. Just to show that I can be successfully shamed into doing my readings!

    Until then, you can always read Paul Thagard:

  79. Hawking said in The Times newspaper two months ago that there are three possibilities: 1. a designer, 2. a multiverse theory, or 3. enormous concidence. We all know it wasn’t the third, so he’s just stated what we all know – that it’s 1 or 2. If you get through the misinformation, that’s where you’ll get to, and then the thinking starts.

    The reason that Hawking says philosophy is dead, is that he isn’t finding what he wants to find in it. Of course it isn’t dead. But he finds having to explore the question of an intended universe out of the question, so he says that philosophy is dead. ‘M theory’, which Hawking says is his alternative to some sort of God, and will be the theory of everything according to him, could take 15 years to formulate, and even then it will be untestable.

    About the question Benjamin – try asking it my way, as above. You need to cut through the misinformation. I did a discussion a bit like this one on a creationist website a few months ago, to find out what those people are like. They were surprisingly like you people – a bunch of gullible people being fed misinformation. Well, both sides are wrong, and both sides are feeding their believers misinformation.

  80. Hm. Well, if the standard operating procedures for the average creationist is to a) vocally and unequivocally state their own ignorance on a certain range of subjects, b) defer to authorities in the scientific field for those subjects, c) agree to reading recommended texts despite the burdens involved (monetary and otherwise), and in the meanwhile d) engage in a vivacious point-by-point discussion on items that are in the province of their modest knowledge — then I must admit that my opinion of these creationists has been quite a bit lower than it ought to have been.

  81. Ben:

    The reason that I suggest a separate thread for this topic is that your debate with David is interesting and yet since it’s at the end of an old thread, many people are missing it.

    Starting a new thread would attract more readers and more input to the debate.

  82. You’re not all that like them! Sorry I said something that might have suggested otherwise, and that was open to misunderstanding. You’re of course far more intelligent than them, and as you say, more open to reading things, and I appreciate that.

    The similarity I couldn’t help noticing was more with a group of physics students I had an exchange with last year on a site – they knew about the apparent fine tuning, but thought that it had been explained. They thought the anthropic prinicple had removed it, and posted a link to a very misleading article about that. When I told tham that the anthropic principle requires many universes – ie a multiverse theory of some sort – they didn’t believe it, as they had been told the anthropic principle removes the coincidences WITHOUT many universes. Most of the discussion was just about that point, which I established eventually by citing sources for them. (The anthropic principle has several different meanings, and has often been used to blur the issues. But interestingly Barrow, who I mention above, was one of the three architects of the original anthropic principle.) So anyway, again it was about trying to get them to first base, and like with the creationists, it was about trying to get them to see outside the bubble of misinformation they were living in. I should say, by the way, that people who live in a bubble of misinformation are of course not to blame for that.

    We’re better leaving this discussion for now, as Amos says, and anyway really. But post here if I can help with anything. I do hope this has been helpful, that was the point of it, though it has also helped me to understand other people’s positions on these questions. Best wishes guys, DM

  83. Ah, fair enough. I misunderstood.

    The anthropic principle seems to be one sticking point in itself. From what I’ve been told, many cosmologists regard that principle as non-explanations. Though of course there are different kinds of anthropic principles, so it’ll depend on specific arguments.

    Anyway you’re right to recommend a temporary end to the discussion — at the very least, I need to get all my ducks in a row before I can continue! But if I have any questions, I’ll be sure to post them, with thanks for your participation.

  84. No need to reply to this post, it’s just in case it helps you when reading about the anthropic principle – as we touched on the subject, which is confusing to many. You may not be sure if my view is right, but knowing it will give you something to look out for in what you read.

    The original anthropic principle was simply the mechanism by which many universes explains the apparent coincidences in the laws of physics. During the 1980s, it was used by atheists to show that the ‘coincidences’ didn’t necessarily mean some intention behind the universe. Instead it showed that with enough sets of laws of physics arising in different places, we could expect the conditions for life to arise in a few, and we would then of course find ourselves in a place with the right conditions, as it would be ‘anthropically selected’.

    This was the one way out of the problem that the universe now seemed to look intended, and the only way that the universe might have arisen by chance, but it was very possible, and we could have been open about the two possibilities that now presented themselves. (Many liked the version of many universes with parallel universes that seemed to explain quantum theory as well, so removing two problems at once.)

    But because these universes were not observable (in an unambiguous way), and because they were the only way of avoiding the idea of some intention behind the universe, the anthropic principle was expressed in very impenetrable language. By the ’90s, some even thought it was a ‘touchy feely’ set of ideas, apparently arguing the other way. This confusion was allowed to continue by people with good heads who could have cleared it up, because it blurred the issues in an area that they didn’t want to be looked into.

    There’s a tendancy for atheists to fool people into comparing 21st century atheism with 19th century ideas about there being a God. 21st century ones are enormously different. You must compare the most recent versions of both, interestingly, we’ve now narrowed both possibilities down quite a lot. Hope this helps.

  85. Hawking said in The Times newspaper two months ago that there are three possibilities: 1. an intended universe, 2. a multiverse theory, or 3. enormous concidence. We all know it wasn’t the third, so he has correctly stated the situation in philosophy – that it has to be either 1 or 2.

    It’s very difficult to remove either 1 or 2, and at the two conferences on the subject no-one tried to, including Hawking. Instead we should just be looking at these two possibilities rationally. Hawking’s new book has drawn criticism from many directions, including from among like minded people.

  86. Sorry, (3) wasn’t disproved. But the numbers are truly enormous, and this being about philosophy and rational thought, we need an explanation better than that. Only (1) and (2) fit the facts without having to make assumptions as ‘expensive’ as massive coincidence.

  87. You can work out quite a lot from what we now know. For instance, the Christian idea of God can be ruled out by looking at the new picture, it just doesn’t fit the facts. So you might say well thank heavens for that as well…

  88. Thanks for the update David. I just got my hands on the volume two days ago. Feel free to post on this thread until I can penetrate enough of the basic concepts to feel confident in expressing some sort of tentative thoughts.

    Here’s one thing that I’ll just put on the table — I think it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best explanation is no explanation.

  89. Thanks Benjamin, hope you find something worth reading there. I agree that sometimes the best explanation is no explanation, but not in philosophy. That’s the area where we look for them, and need them!

    To Confused, I only said ‘for instance’, because a lot of the closed-mindedness about the new information we have arises from the nonsense in Christianity. Personally I think both religion and atheism are wrong, and in fact I rather object to the word ‘atheism’, as it implies the only alternative is theism. I can live with the word, but I think it’s indicative of the very common habit of making assumptions before you start thinking, about what the possible range of answers to the question you’ll be looking at might be. To me that’s shoddy thinking.

  90. Yes, I agree with the point that only one of religion and atheism can be true, but both can be false.

    But I think both religion and atheism (non-theism that is) are subsets of two wider sets, and these two wider headings remove the mistake of making any pre-assumptions. They are chance and intention.

    When you get right down to it, either the universe arose by chance, or it arose by the intention of some intelligence. There’s no third way, this covers all possibilities.

    To show that this doesn’t have to involve any theism, for example, Barrow recently published the view that it may be a computer simulation, and this would explain the ‘coincidences’ in the laws of physics.

    If you project our computer technology forward 100 years, will the characters we create in “computer soap operas” be able to think? Some would say yes. To feel? some would say yes.

    If you assume that there are many very advanced civilisations, and that most of them create computer worlds (someone realised this during the ’90s), then there would be far more numerous habitable fake worlds than real ones. So on the law of averages, we’d probably be in a simulation.

    I’m not saying this is true, but it’s a very good excercise, at the very least, to think about, because it removes religion. If you have a Nerd instead of a God, all the bias both for and against religion is removed. So you can look for what the Nerd’s motivations would be in creating this universe, and look afresh, without all the rubbish that used to be attached to the question. (Look at the crazy humour, which we now know several intelligent species seem to have). And the things about the universe that are interesting to any intelligence – that ‘interestingness’ is not only subjective, it’s actually partly objective, and much of it would not have arisen in a universe that came about by chance. And look at it all in the light of the new information we have, and there’s a lot of new information.

    Religion causes closed minds – on BOTH sides of the fence. So throw it out, and look at things with a truly unknown hypothetical intelligence behind it. And also look at the other possibility, chance and many universes. You’d have a minimum set of requirements, if things arose in a probabilistic way.

    So are we looking at a minimum, like the minimalism you’d find in the work of a monkey with a typewriter, when he finally produces something? Or is there more interesting and amazing stuff than that minimum that would have arisen in that kind of probabilistic way? Stuff that is interesting and amazing to any intelligence, not just us?

  91. I agree that the idea of a computer world just pushes the question of the origin to a further regress. I mentioned it mainly because to me it makes a good excercise, to think, well if it was designed by some intelligence (which remember, if we go only by what we know, and not what we imagine might be the case, we’d technically have to say it appears to have been), then what would the motivations be?

    When we do that nowadays, we get a set of motivations that have not been seen before. If taken as a computer world, it looks, among other things, like a work of art. But not a rose-tinted one – the interesting stuff that arises is driven by desperate struggles to survive, in a world that lives always at the interesting balance point – with opposing forces in balance everywhere. Like in the work of Shakespeare, you find trouble everywhere, species rise and fall, and intelligence develops and fights its way forward, and you get interesting stories coming out of that.

    And it’s more poignant, and the adventure side is better, if the characters don’t know for sure what kind of setup they’re in. So the civilisations in the universe, probably many of them, would be left wondering if it was set up or not. The coincidences in the laws of physics are there for all to see, but also reason to think it might have arisen by chance, such as the way life evolves.

    A world that was set up to generate interesting stories would have to have forces in rough balance in many places, or things would get boring very easily. We tend to take the daily interestingness of our world for granted, but a world coming out of random odds (which is the only alternative, we now know – it has to be either (1) or (2), as above) would be unbearably boring.

    A monkeys’ typing pool, with millions of monkeys typing away, would only occasionally reproduce a well-known bit of prose. But when it finally did it would be a very simple and very short one. Not many extras, nothing beyond the minimum. And the rich contents of our universe – which, to us at least, seem about as interesting as they could possibly be at every turn – seem to contain many unnecessary extras. So are these ‘extras’ only interesting to us? or are they interesting to any intelligence?

    There are things here that didn’t need to arise if it arose probabilistically, like with the typing monkeys. The laws of physics didn’t only generate life, they generated great works of art (within the universe), like the work of Beethoven, Van Gogh. Those things are ‘extras’, they’re too interesting to have arisen from many universes, where things develop randomly, and where you’d get a minimum of interestingness. Hope you see what I mean. Gotta go, I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, haven’t packed. I hope this was of interest. I’ll have to leave it here.

  92. Hi,

    I hope it’s not too late to add some comments. I’m not convinced the only two options are a creator or a multiverse.

    If you read, for example, Robin Collins’ The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe (Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology), he uses the Principle of Indifference to assign probabilities. Basically this Principle states that equal epistemic probabilities should be assigned to different combinations of universal constants. So if there are a billion different combinations, the chances of our universe arising are a billion to 1.

    We can argue that a number of different combinations could allow some form of life to arise. (I obviously assuming that the finetuner has this as their aim). But still, the range of possible values is still very small.

    However this is something we know absolutely nothing about. We really don’t know what constraints there may be on these variables. All we know are the numerically possible ranges of values, we have no idea what the empirically possible values are. If, for example, all of these were based on one or two fundamental constants, each of which had only two possible values each, the picture would look very different.

    In which case, it seems very presumptuous to just use the Principle of Indifference. Imagine if we were told someone was throwing dice and the numbers 1 to 20 could theoretically come up. If we apply the Principle of Indifference we will assume 1, 10 and 20 will be equally as probable to appear; in fact 1 might never come up (3 * 6-sides; 2 * 10-sides); 10 might be more probable than 20 (3 * 6-sides, 2 * 10-sides) or equally probable (1 * 20-sides). We know much less than was known in original applications of the Principle of Indifference (e.g. that the die has 6 sides, but it may be unbalanced).

    Therefore, we can’t know this universe is de-facto very unlikely.

    By the way, re the “interesting stories”, I hear an echo in my mind, the curse “May you live in interesting times”. We definitely cannot assume a *kind” creator if he or she is looking to maximise drama like an Eastenders (soap) writer. I’m not sure we must assume a master plan either – I’ve heard people surmise Eastenders writers use dice with character names on one and calamities on the other 😉

  93. Thanks for that, Cathby. Your point, I take it, is in favor of a kind of skepticism. You’ve argued that the choices that we’ve been offered are predicated upon the assumption that real probabilities are arrived at a priori. But real probabilities aren’t like that. Perhaps, for reasons that are totally incomprehensible to us, all of existence is built in such a way that the fundamental constants are more likely to be as they actually are.

    In all likelihood, David will respond by saying that this is all well and good, but we don’t know what those constraints are, so we might as well start doing some philosophy. But what I find interesting about your suggestion is that it paves the way for an alternative principle, on the grounds of parsimony. We might call it the cosmological principle: it is necessarily the case (or at least, highly probably the case) that the fundamental constants of our universe are as they are. There is no need for an anthropic principle, or at least it is a red herring. So what looks at first blush like design is actually the cast iron demands of eternity.

    And there are, of course, other argumentative options besides that. There’s the holographic theory, for one. Another: Robin Collins has argued that the existence of a designer is compatible with the multiverse theory. True, I guess, but then you get the worst of both worlds. Another: Paul Davies argues that there is such a thing as top-down causation exists, and hence (somehow) this produces a third alternative. This is attractive because he (like many of us) thinks the multiverse idea is just about as much garbage as the design hypothesis. That sounds like good news, but I’ll reserve judgment.

  94. @curious

    Well, yes, but that’s just the antropic principle again. Those philosophers who argue it IS unlikely have a point. If you were trapped in a game where you would be shot if you didn’t select an complete suit of diamonds from a deck of cards, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if it was fixed when you survived. The antropic principle says you wouldn’t know you failed if you did fail and that’s all. My suggestion is that maybe there are only diamonds in the pack. The multiverse theory says when you leave you find everyone else on the planet dead next to 13 random cards.

    “In all likelihood, David will respond by saying that this is all well and good, but we don’t know what those constraints are, so we might as well start doing some philosophy.”

    The problem being, how can he justify the Principle of Indifference? It is not the case we know no reason to favour one option over another, it’s that we can’t even be sure of the options. If he just chooses probabilities at random, we can too (probability of 1?)

    “But what I find interesting about your suggestion is that it paves the way for an alternative principle, on the grounds of parsimony. We might call it the cosmological principle: it is necessarily the case (or at least, highly probably the case) that the fundamental constants of our universe are as they are. There is no need for an anthropic principle, or at least it is a red herring.”
    I wouldn’t go so far as highly probable 🙂 Can it be necessary given we can imagine coherently possible universes in which the constants are different? It’s an interesting thought though.

    But even taking it less far – perhaps it was a one in nine chance our universe would arise (based on three primary underlying constants, switched on or off). But would we be astonished if we drew a Queen from a pack of cards, which is even longer odds? Not enough to justify evoking a multiverse or a creator I suspect.

    This does go back to Curious’ point of course – it can be argued with some justification that our subjective amazement isn’t very firm foundations to build any conjectures on 🙂

  95. Cathby, I can’t speak for David. I think one way that someone might make the case for the multiverse/design dichotomy is by saying that we have to try to make the most of the evidence we have at hand.

    Suppose a shady coinmaker were to challenge you to a bet. He shows you a seemingly immaculate coin, and says: I’ll bet you this coin will come up tails. You toss the coin; he’s right. But then you start getting interested in explaining why he’s right. By sight alone, you can immediately tell that the odds of landing “heads” on a toss are 1/2; it’s reasonable to say this a priori. But of course, you might think that it’s a trick coin, and the only way you’ll be able to find out that it’s a trick is by adopting a frequency theory of probability: you toss the coin an indefinite number of times until you find out that the odds of landing heads are astronomically low (1/10^10). Now suppose the shady coinmaker absconded with the coin before you could test it and put it in an impenetrable glass case. What does the skeptic say about the odds, on the basis of the evidence? They can say to the coin-maker, “You’re a shady bastard, I don’t trust you, so I think it was a trick coin — it was designed to come up tails.” Or you can say, “1/2”. But to say, “hell if I know”, seems to fail to make the most of the evidence you have.

    In some ways, we seem to be just like the coinmaker’s dupe. We can’t remake the universe an indefinite number of times to see whether the outcome was 100%. If we’re forced to make the most of the evidence we have, then we seem to be stuck with a design or a multiverse. Our explanatory hubris, combined with our limited options, motivates the principle of indifference.

    But in the first place, like you, I don’t see why the coinmaker’s dupe is doing something wrong by saying they don’t know. Sometimes, the best explanation is no explanation at all. In the interests of modesty, we should stop pretending that we’re in the business of explaining anything, and instead we’re in the storytelling business.

    In the second place, I think that an appeal to design is actually just a specialized kind of appeal to necessity. As a matter of fact, we can make up all kinds of stories about how the coin necessarily arose in the way it did — the chimera of a designer is something that we inherit from our dubious reliance on the anthropic principle. But if we want to tell a story that involves necessity without design, we’ll need to have some other kind of principled reason. For example, one entirely philosophical line of thought would be that time is necessary to possibility, and that the Big Bang was the creation of time, and hence the creation of possibility.

    Mere logical possibilities (and subjective amazement!) are the opposite of science, and I think they make for bad philosophy too. So I don’t worry much about that.

  96. @Benjamin S Nelson
    “Suppose a shady coinmaker were to challenge you to a bet. He shows you a seemingly immaculate coin, and says: I’ll bet you this coin will come up tails. You toss the coin; he’s right. But then you start getting interested in explaining why he’s right. By sight alone, you can immediately tell that the odds of landing “heads” on a toss are 1/2; it’s reasonable to say this a priori. ”

    Exactly! The problem is, we are meeting a shady diemaker. He says, “I have dice; I will throw them and give you the numbers relating to them”. He gives us the numbers. We never see the dice. We have no idea how many sides they have (think D&D here 🙂 ). “Relate” is a weasel word – are some or all of the numbers we are given based on one die thrown? Many thrown?

    If we could only get many sets of figures, we might work it out. But we only have one. But I don’t see how we can make any reasonable assumption a priori.

    “But in the first place, like you, I don’t see why the coinmaker’s dupe is doing something wrong by saying they don’t know. Sometimes, the best explanation is no explanation at all.”

    “But if we want to tell a story that involves necessity without design, we’ll need to have some other kind of principled reason. For example, one entirely philosophical line of thought would be that time is necessary to possibility, and that the Big Bang was the creation of time, and hence the creation of possibility.”

    Which implies other universes would not be possible? Interesting, I’ll have to think about that one

  97. “Of course, being told “it was just an enormous ‘lucky-for-you’ coincidence” doesn’t explain why you got the right 13 cards either. It is an admission that there is no explanation – other than the fact that no other particular set of 13 cards was initially any more likely to be drawn.”

    I agree totally. And really, there are so many things that happen that we find amazing, but in fact are bound to happen by the laws of probability. (Lottery win as you said). So why it happens to one person? there really is no explanation.

    “Looking for an explanation is reasonable though and your suggestion that there were only ever were diamonds in the pack is intriguing. Is a Theory of Everything still on the cards?”

    Depends who you ask – this CERN page is a good summary (I think from my very basic knowledge 🙂

    The “all diamonds” possibility is a long way off being demonstrated, even if it is true and could be demonstrated. IYSWIM.

  98. Hello, good to see some new comments. Can’t stay long, very busy. Robin Collins is one of the very unimpressive contributers to “Universe or multiverse”, who believes in a God. They sometimes deliberately choose unconvincing people to put the intended universe view, they’re often set up to lose the argument. (In extreme cases they keep referring to the very weakest arguments they can find, as in Dawkins and creationism.)

    I’ve been at a debate at a university with Paul Davies as a somewhat detached arbiter (it was 2005, he’d just written ‘the Goldilocks enigma’, which tries to puts all the different points of view), two quite intelligent atheists arguing for the multiverse, and a totally dumb Christian physicist, who didn’t have his head round the philosophy at all. He was set up to lose the argument, and he certainly did.

    Even the more intelligent Christians (a bit of a contradiction, but..) aren’t in a position to win the argument, because their view is so clearly wrong, in the light of the new landscape. So the trump cards aren’t in their hand, but they certainly exist. Robin Collins I don’t know much about, but he’s a Christian and anyway, you really mustn’t go by what he says.

    As always, the issues you seem to be talking about are pre-first base. First base is admitting what the entire top layer of the philosophy world have already accepted, which is that the universe arose in one of two ways – either in a probabilistic way, as in some multiverse, or by the intention of some intelligence.

    Both views are totally acceptable, either might be true. If there’s some kind of multiverse – any kind at all – then yes, as you say, there will always be a lottery winner, so it’s not surprising that the laws of physics arise as they did occasionally. And we would of course be in a universe with the right details, otherwise these questions wouldn’t be askable. (That’s the anthropic principle – it requires many universes.)

    These two alternatives are not threatening to you – they allow atheism, but atheism now requires many universes, to make up the odds. During the 1990s literally millions of informed atheists quietly made the switch to believing in a multiverse, because they knew it now went with the idea that the universe arose by chance. And a large number of physicists worked on multiverse theories, because these guys would naturally start with the idea that it all arose by chance, that was really built into their approach – very understandable. So they put in many universes, because that was unavoidable. Some theories fit the idea better than others, but many universes wouldn’t be very popular if it wasn’t for this need, I promise you, because they’re somewhat unobservable.

    But it doesn’t matter that we can’t observe them. Neither of the two views in front of us can give direct evidence easily now – both require something outside our universe to exist.

    If you accept first base, that it’s one or the other, there are THEN some very good arguments for the universe not having arisen in a probabilistic way. They’re about the fact that things that arose in a probabilistic way have a minimalism about them, like the monkey with the typewriter, who types a very minimal bit of known poetry when he finally does. That minimalism doesn’t appear in our universe. We have more than the minimum in many areas. The puzzles of physics for example are so interesting (beyond the minimum), and in a fundamental way that would be interesting to any intelligence, that people like Einstein and Heisenberg believed they were looking at designed puzzles. Heisenberg said: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. Hope this is of interest. Keep on truckin’…

    PS by the way, Cathby says “re the “interesting stories”, I hear an echo in my mind, the curse “May you live in interesting times”. We definitely cannot assume a *kind” creator if he or she is looking to maximise drama..”

    I agree, and I suggest you assume nothing. Particularly nothing relating to religion, leave religion out. Otherwise, it’s not that you’ll get the wrong answers, it’s that you’ll be asking the wrong questions.

    But maximising the drama is only one of many motivations that now appear in the new clues, most of them not to be found in any religion.

  99. Perhaps I should back up what I’ve said by quoting some atheist physicists. I don’t want to make unsupported statements. Physicists refer comparatively rarely to the problem of the ‘fine tuning’ of the laws of physics, which their work is often an attempt to wriggle out of, but here and there one finds them mentioning it.

    In the famous Smolin-Susskind debate you see two top atheist physicists both trying to get out of the fine tuning, but in directly opposite ways, and disagreeing so deeply that each shows the other’s thinking to be weak, speculative, and above all ‘ad hoc’.

    Smolin says at one point what he is trying to get out of:

    “..the low energy parameters seem tuned to produce carbon chemistry and long lived stars.”

    Susskind says:

    “I have exactly the opposite opinion from Smolin’s. If the universe were dominated by black holes all matter would be sucked in, and life would be completely impossible. It seems clear to me that we live in a surprisingly smooth world remarkably free of the ravenous monsters that would devour life. I take the lack of black holes to be a sign of some anthropic selection.

    Now I come to one of those technical objections, which I think is quite damning but which may mean very little to a layman. Smolin’s idea is tied to Hawking’s old claim that information can fall into a black hole and get trapped behind the horizon. Smolin requires a great deal of information to be transferred from the parent universe to the infant at the bouncing singularity. But the last decade of black hole physics and string theory have told us that NO information can be transferred in this way!”

    And the other day this was posted by Philip Gibbs:

    “They say that if you throw a frog into hot water it will quickly jump out, but if you put it in cold water and gradually heat the water up it will stay there until it is boiled to death. You should not try this experiment at home but it seems like nature is trying it on physicists who like supersymmetry. In the 1980s we thought that supersymmetric partners would have light masses to avoid fine tuning. If this was right they would have been seen at LEP or the Tevatron. Now the LHC has pushed the minimum masses to uncomfortably high values implying quite a lot of fine tuning. The water is heating up but we will stay put because we now know that the multiverse allows for such fine tuning provided it is in the best interests of our existence. Perhaps the higher masses were needed to allow dark matter to form galaxies or some such.”

  100. Benjamin S Nelson

    That’s all well and good, but it’s second-base stuff. I’m still at first-base.

    Apart from other philosophical concerns, my resistance to first base is best motivated by Steve Weinstein (“Anthropic reasoning and typicality in multiverse cosmology and string theory”; Classical and Quantum Gravity, 2006), who argues that anthropic reasoning has no explanatory role without Vilenkin’s principle of mediocrity, which states that we are typical observers among the universe of observers. The idea is that prudence requires us to “condition probabilities, not on a detailed description of “us”, but on the weakest condition consistent
    with “us” that plausibly provides useful results”. But there’s no basis for thinking that we satisfy the principle of mediocrity — we may be atypical observers. (Incidentally, this is a paper that Lee Smolin cites approvingly, who you quoted above.)

  101. I don’t think you necessarily understand what anthropic reasoning means. It’s a principle that has been deliberately made confusing in the terminology surrounding it, as Paul Davies has pointed out. But the question of whether or not we’re atypical or typical observers doesn’t affect the basic questions, which apply either way.

    Again, if this wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t have all the work that has been done on many universe theories, which are untestable. This work has been done by people among the many (not all, it’s true) who have admitted first base, to themselves at least. These theories are ‘desperate remedies’ to use John Gribbin’s phrase.

  102. Benjamin S Nelson

    Indeed! Perhaps I don’t understand. But then, if we’re trading quotes, it doesn’t matter what I think — it matters what Smolin and Weinstein think. To address that, you’ll have to read and respond to that paper. I don’t think I misrepresented Steve — although I may have, and am certainly open to correction if you think so.

  103. I agree with some of what you’ve said – many physicists don’t see the fine tuning as a problem. That’s really what I’ve been saying – that those who’ve accepted first base, the two alternatives, are often comfortable with that new situation. I’ve been trying to encourage you to do the same, and move comfortably on from there, into exciting new territory, whatever conclusions we draw, and it’s of course a matter of opinion. So I don’t think it needs to be like with the frog!

    But some physicists take it that way (including Philip Gibbs) for several reasons, and feel that their backs are to the wall. So they do often try to wriggle out of the fine tuning, without mentioning it much, which there’s no need to do. The reasons are like this:

    1. To some it seems hard to do physics without the freedon to assume a chance origin for the universe, as we did before. Instead, we now have to include many universes in our theories, and because some thinking denies the existence of anything unobservable (logical positivism), strictly it gets a little unscientific to proceed in that direction, or seems to. In the Horizon documentary “What happened before the big bang?” you see many Perimeter Institute guys working on theories about pre-BB, and the reason is that people now feel they must try to explain the origin, rather than just leaving it out, as we used to. If we don’t explain it, the fine tuning might do that, and that is seen as a threat by many.

    2. The foundations of physics seem threatened in other ways. The laws of physicis are meant to be the same everywhere, that’s one of the underlying principles. Or it was until 1979. But now the laws need to vary widely between universes, to make our particular set of laws capable of appearing without enormous coincidence – to make up the odds. Again, the new situation seems restrictive to some.

    3. Along with some beautiful stuff, Christianity got filled with putdowns and threats, used in order to control people. These were added layer by layer over time. These make it almost like a cult (according to the standard definition, which includes threats to those who leave or don’t follow the cult). This is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that to many the fine tuning looked worrying, even though we all know that stuff is nonsense.

    But it’s actually interesting and hopeful news. Some Eastern religion, for me anyway, explains some of the beautiful and amazing things in this world far better. But to me the different religions got unreliable versions of the truth, filtered through the human mind, and incorporating the mentality and social rules of the time and place. They always leave out what to me is the crucial element – deliberately setting off beauty, love and the wonderful things here, against terrible things, desperate struggle, hopelessness. To me this contrast is what makes the world what it is, and you find it in art all the time (reflecting the world of course, but it shows how that principle works). Stories arise from on-the-fence situations – interesting stuff, powerful drama, poignancy, all arise at that balance point. So I think the world has been deliberately put at the balance point in many areas, for those and other reasons.

    Benjamin – I haven’t read the Weinberg paper, but he’s probably one of the minority who don’t accept the need for the multiverse. But Philip Gibbs mentions it: “… but we will stay put because we now know that the multiverse allows for such fine tuning provided it is in the best interests of our existence.” (I only requote this to remind you that many physicists have taken on board the need for the multiverse, if the universe arose by chance.)

  104. Benjamin S Nelson

    Not Weinberg, Weinstein. Different guys. 🙂

    Weinstein might be a part of the minority. I’ll be sure to raid the physics department one of these days to find out for sure. But anyway, once you read his argument, I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on it.

  105. PS The point I made about the Smolin-Susskind debate is that they disagree so very oppositely, that it shows their efforts on this question to be far from solid.

    This is rather like the way an Australian Professor of Anthropology dealt the killer blow to creationism, not that there’s any need even address creationism at all. Wish I could find the webpage. He examined two books by two creationist “experts” and showed that they contradict each other so deeply about how to interpret certain humanoid skeletons that both looked terrible. But also, their whole approach looked terrible, because they couldn’t agree even very slightly on what that approach should be. And they were meant to be the two best people on it. Now of course, creationism is laughable anyway, but the point I’m making is only that the Smolin Susskind debate had a touch of the same thing about it – two experts who couldn’t agree even a little on how to get to a chance origin.

  106. Benjamin S Nelson

    Well, okay, but what’s the consensus on how many multiverses there are?

  107. Some say many, some say an infinite number. Just read the Steven Weinstein paper – I agree with a lot of it. He shows some potential problems with the weak anthropic principle (WAP), which is about the conditions needed for intelligent observers – the one about the actual laws of physics is the strong anthropic principle.

    But the contradiction he finds in the WAP arises from assuming that it’s a theory that should make predictions. He then says that to do that it needs us to be typical, but of course to explain the fine tuning it needs our universe to be atypical.

    The answer is that it’s not a theory, it doesn’t need to make predictions, it’s just an attempt to explain what we find here, and we need to be atypical for that explanation to work.

    The original WAP was used in the ‘80s to try to avoid many universes (when they still couldn’t bear the idea) by arguing that all we need is a many regions – of this universe – theory. The regions would have widely varying conditions, and we would live in a favourable region. It later turned out that this wasn’t enough to remove the fine tuning, so that early version was abandoned, and increasingly extreme measures were taken.

    The Weinstein paper shows weaknesses in the present attempts to provide a way the universe might have arisen by chance. It shows that it’s not a theory, it’s a hypothesis. But my own view is that rather than dwell on its weaknesses, we should put it alongside the intended universe, and just compare them. They’re similar in many ways – two hypotheses that don’t readily make predictions.

    The details about the odds he mentions don’t matter – we all know that they’re very long odds, however you look at it. But he’s absolutely right to point out that the definitions need stating clearly, and I agree with what you quoted from the paper, which is a quote Weinstein makes from Jim Hartle: “it is prudent to condition probabilities, not on a detailed description of ‘us’, but on the weakest condition consistent with ‘us’ that plausibly provides useful results.”
    That’s closely related to what I’ve been saying about the minimalism to be expected from a universe that arose in a probabilistic way. The minimum scenario is observers who can make and interpret observations well enough for their findings to be relevant to the question.

    But what we have here is much, much more interesting that that minimum scenario. And ‘interesting’ and ‘boring’ turn out to be partly objective, not all subjective qualities. Must go, my girlfriend is getting pissed off that I’m spending so much time at the computer, we’re meant to be on holiday ferchrissake.… hope this was worth reading.

  108. Benjamin S Nelson

    David, listen to your girlfriend and have a good holiday! Various things are unclear to me, and to some extent are getting even less clear. But lucky for me I have local (fully paid, non-holiday) sources ready at hand who can help, so it’ll save us both valuable internet time/energy if I talk to them first.

  109. To Curious. First, truly sorry to you or anyone who might have found that offensive. There are many different kinds of intelligence, and I’ve known some wonderful Christians with a different kind of intelligence (from the kind needed to win the argument which they’ve so appaulingly lost). The most valuable kind is other than this stuff here on this page.

    Your other comments show you’ve not understood what I’ve said, and seem not to have read it. You put odd words in my mouth – I never said that anyone had “disproved a chance origin”! Quite the opposite, I said a chance origin was one of two hypotheses that should be compared, neither of which readily provide predictions. Not easily disprovable that means. See previous post.

    You’d better read it again, and you’ll see what I’ve said, and why I’ve said it. And I’d just remind you one more time that Stephen Hawking said it too, he said there are three possibilities – intention, multiverse, or vast concidence. To us lot, that means two.

    Thanks Benjamin, a pleasure to talk with you.

  110. No Hawking wasn’t, and he has effectively been very rude to religious people, and has dismissed their beliefs as just superstition.

    By contrast, I have said that religion is loosely based on something true, just as early medecine was, even though it contained a lot of quackery. But the underlying aims and principles of medecine were not to be abandoned, just because the early versions were rubbish. Same with science, if you think about it (the four elements of the ancient Greeks etc). Why shouldn’t views of a God develop and improve, if science does? God knows they need to…

    I’ve also said, if you read the posts that you clearly haven’t read, that there is an abstract feeling side to religion, without words, which is what matters. The rational stuff they get wrong a lot – the thinking side – but it’s not the important bit. So I’ve taken their side, and have defended what they practise and feel, if not what they think.

    Do multiverse theories argue for a chance origin? All informed atheists believe they do, and believe the multiverse exists in one way or another. You only show your ignorance if you say otherwise.

    An account of a chance origin? You want that from me? Well, I’m not the person to ask, I believe it was set off deliberately. Read Hawking for that, he says he can explain it without the need for a designer. He has gone to great lengths to find a way of doing that. He says M theory will do it, although it will be untestable. Now we must bring this to an end, hope it helped in some way.

  111. Benjamin S Nelson

    Curious, you need not! I share your concerns, and this is a free discussion area. You should feel welcome to post. (It just happens that I sympathize with a man on holiday.)

    We’re being told that there are two headings, “chance” and “non-chance”, and that under the heading of “chance” there are two possibilities — either multiverse, or non-explanation. And under the “non-chance” category, it’s assumed (for some reason or other) that there’s only one viable possibility: design. And, of course, “non-explanation” is a junk option. So it’s just Multiverse or Design.

    Well, I confess that I am quite mystified by this setup. I don’t see why belief in a non-chance universe entails design. And from what I’ve been able to gather on the basis of talking to experts in philosophy of physics, I know that I’m in pretty respectable company.

    But at least I have a bunch more doors I can knock on to find out if I really am being sold a minority position. Not everyone has that privilege. And I certainly can’t complain if people explore the matter in good faith exchanges!

  112. Well say a third option, if you think there is one.

    How could it have not come about by chance, and also not by intention? The ‘no beginning’ view also counts as chance, as it would exist by chance, with or without an origin point. And Smolin’s attempts to get universes to evolve, as well as having been demolished by Susskind, also count as chance. Nothing wrong with that, chance is a real possibility.

    The reason I use the phrase ‘arose in a probabilistic way’ is that all the different versions of a chance origin must have done. So the points that can be made about that possibility can be made in that way. As I’ve said, I’m not alone in this view! Years of untestable multiverse theories show this. The only reason you don’t take what I say onboard is that you live in a bubble of misinformation. But I’ve given you the clues to see beyond it, good luck guys.

  113. PS it is often perfectly scientific to look for intelligent intention behind something. For instance, military scientists might examine film of a bird to see if it is a small spyplane. A few days ago I found six or seven stones in a line while out walking – one could study them to see if someone intelligent placed them in a line, or if forces such as wind or tide did it.

    The new clues we have since 1979 about the universe mean we are now studying it with that question in mind. We only have two hypotheses, but if one if one is false then the other is true.

  114. Benjamin S Nelson

    I did above in reply to Cathyby. “Chance” is an ambiguous word in this context. The antonym of “chance” is not necessarily “design”, it can also be “understandable” or “foreseeable”, and in particular “understandable as a necessary event”. So here’s a story: the fundamental constants could not have been otherwise because the setup at the beginning of time marked the start of contingent events, and in the absence of contingency, there’s only necessity.

    If by living in a “bubble of misinformation” you mean, “asked around and found that experts in the field of philosophy of physics did not agree with the dichotomy, and doubt that there is any consensus upon it”, then I don’t really know what else I’m supposed to think. So you can certainly count me among the ranks of the misinformed, for the time-being.

  115. Ah, I understand what you mean now. We just have a misunderstanding about the terms. Under the general heading of chance, I have all kinds of things like understandable, forseeable aspects of the universe. You can even try to say it was ‘necessary’ for it to come into existence (though you’ll have trouble with that one!) and it would still come under the general heading of chance, in the sense that it just happened to be that way.

    Perhaps ‘chance’ is not the best word to use, I’ve been learning from this exchange in a number of ways. The terms should at least be explained clearly, if not replaced by better ones. But I hope you see what I mean. Btw, my girlfriend say thanks for telling me to listen to her, think I’d better.

  116. @David Martin

    “Robin Collins is one of the very unimpressive contributers to “Universe or multiverse”, who believes in a God. They sometimes deliberately choose unconvincing people to put the intended universe view, they’re often set up to lose the argument. (In extreme cases they keep referring to the very weakest arguments they can find, as in Dawkins and creationism.)”

    Do you know who Robin Collins is, besides a contributor to “Universe and Multiverse”? You aren’t dismissing him purely because of a contribution to one book, I hope? And if you don’t rate *him* as a philosophic advocate of fine-tuning, who *would* you recommend?

    “First base is admitting what the entire top layer of the philosophy world have already accepted, which is that the universe arose in one of two ways – either in a probabilistic way, as in some multiverse, or by the intention of some intelligence. ”

    Well, this has been covered by Benjamin above – but I’ll add my 2 cents. Why this dichotomy? How do we *know* that these are your choices?

    I asked above, how do we know that the variables we know are not set based on a smaller number of more basic variables, which means our universe is just one of say 4 or 6?

    “There are many different kinds of intelligence, and I’ve known some wonderful Christians with a different kind of intelligence (from the kind needed to win the argument which they’ve so appaulingly lost).”
    I’m massively curious. What are you trying to say here? That Christians are devoid of reasoning skills? (On the face of it, it still sounds pretty rude).

  117. It is very simple. Thanks Curious for helping get some of these things clearer.

    The straight line of six or seven stones I saw on the ground a few days ago got like that in one of two ways. Either some intelligence lined them up, or there was no intention for them to be lined up, they just happened to get that way by what I call ‘chance’. Maybe the tide came up and placed them in a line, or a rockslide – whatever.

    The apparent fine tuning in the laws of physics we’ve found is like the line of stones. Either some intelligence put it there, or it just happened to come about that way.

    Those are the two general headings, and either the man in the street or a good philosopher will take that onboard. A bad philosopher will think he can twist it any way he wants to. But those at the top of the philosophy world have taken this onboard, as the two conferences on the fine tuning show. Much of the discussion in the book from those two conferences, “Universe or multiverse?”, shows this. Lee Smolin was there, he said design is attractive in some ways, though he is an atheist. And many other things you’ll find back this up, if you read carefully, looking through the misinformation.

    The interesting thing is that each of these two basic possibilities now have some additional stuff that we know goes with them. Chance, or non-intention, goes with a probabilistic origin for our set of laws – some kind of multiverse. This is unavoidable, though they won’t necessarily tell you that. But it’s widely accepted.

    Ok, about the wisdom of the Buddha. I told you, I don’t agree with the thinking in religion, or most of it, but I think there’s a layer of abstract feeling underneath, which is what matters. So if by ‘wisdom’ you mean the thinking side, as in that of the rational mind, you’ll find me disagreeing with them. But if by wisdom you mean abstract feeling, without words, then yes. My point that the thinking side of religion is unreliable seems obvious, because they disagree amongst themselves a lot. I think they were trying to explain something that came to them without an explanation attached, so they made up a lot of stuff to explain it, mostly rubbish. Hence their differences. The similarities are in what they say about the abstract feeling side, and it shows they all found the same thing inside, whatever that was.

    Yes, the rebounding universe is an old idea (Thomas Gold in the 1950s). But nowadays every theory tries to explain the origin, so the emphasis is different. And as Andrei Linde said about the work going on at the Perimeter Institute on pre big bang ideas, the average lifespan of a theory is about 18 months. They keep trying things and then trying something else.

    Ok, Cathby. Robin Collins was at one of the fine tuning conferences, I read his bit in the book. Seemed set up to fail, chosen to lose the argument. Also seemed like a careerist, who was so tactful to protect his career, he even said that both God and the multiverse might be true. Clearly you don’t need two untestable hypotheses if one will do, Occam’s razor. So it seemed that he was afraid to say what everyone knew. But as I’ve said, I don’t know much about him, he works at something called ‘messiah college’ or whatever, which put me off looking any further immediately.

    Of course some Christians have some rational intelligence, I only said “a bit of a contradiction, but…” that was partly flippant, and I’ve already apologised. But it’s true that Christians weren’t equipped to argue the other way, for various reasons, including the fact that, in my opinion anyway, the truly clever ones read beyond Christianity, and see beyond it.

    What should you read? Try Paul Davies. The Goldilocks enigma sets it all out, but his earlier books are better. or read this page again. if there wasn’t a shortage of reading matter on this, I wouldn’t be writing here.

  118. Benjamin S Nelson

    Just a sidenote, while I move through “Universe or Multiverse” at a glacier’s pace. Evidently, Edgar Allen Poe, in his poorly-received prose poem “Eureka!”, originally formulated the idea of the expanding/contracting universe. These ideas can have very strange origins.

  119. @curious

    The search for an ultimate answer is a search for something that has to exist (something “necessary”, nothing not contingent). If you posit an eternal universe (albeit one that expands and collapses, again and again in an everlasting cycle) then your thing that exists necessarily IS the universe.

    This also applies to the multiverse – if the multiverse is eternal (even if its constituent members are not), that is an ultimate answer.

    And it also applies to God/a Maker – if you posit that they themselves are necessary (a Maker who is a grad student in a universe outside ours creating our universe as a project does not provide that ultimate answer).

    Of course you are also right that logically we are vastly limited in what we can know about a Maker/God (we can perhaps get clues from this universe). So even IF we accept design, how do we adjudicate between grad student and Diety? Design does not necessarily provide a ultimate explanation.

  120. @David Martin

    Re Paul Davies, I’ll seek out “The Goldilocks Enigma” but I was hoping for a specifically philosophical suggestion (given where we are!) After all, from what I hear, Davies doesn’t end up with the idea of a Creator either, does he?

    Re Robin Collins, he was chosen to write the fine-tuning section for the Blackwell Guide to Natural Theology, and supposedly an expert on it. Not that it directly matters, since, if you haven’t read his argument you can’t say by fiat that it’s rubbish.

    Re choices, yes, we have design and chance (not entirely a dichotomy – a painter can create a painting by throwing paint, combining design and chance).

    But you seem to be moving from that dichotomy to one between a multiverse vs a designed universe. Given there are a multitude of other possibilities, how do you justify that move? My understanding is the multiverse idea is intimately tied up with string theory – string theory could be passed over or disproved. In terms of hard data, we are still at the very beginning.

  121. You simply don’t understand the present situation in philosophy.

    It all boils down to one single question, which I’ll put below. It’s about the origin of our set of laws of physics.

    You can’t avoid it, though you will probably try to for a bit (somewhat like the frog that Philip Gibbs described in the quote above about the fine tuning in the masses of the supersymmetric partner particles).

    Your meandering thoughts are appropriate to the 1970s, or perhaps the early ’80s, before we’d worked out what the new clues do.

    You keep referrring to arguments that belong in the past, and often picking fights with weak versions, old irrelevant versions, of the intended universe. In doing this, your prejudice shows clearly. You’re effectively putting weak words in the mouths those who argue for intention.

    Instead take issue with 21st century arguments on this. Are you afraid to? To do that you’ll need to do some reading, because you’re comparatively ignorant. I hope what I’ve written above will be a guide – you won’t assume it to be correct at first of course, but it might nevertheless help you see what the present situation is.

    But the question will be whether you want to see through the stuff that might mislead you, and see what’s underneath. Because you will basically see whatever you want to. At your level, philosophy is as easy to blur and smudge as fresh oil paint. That’s why I said above “Either the man in the street or a good philosopher will take this onboard. A bad philosopher will think he can twist it any way he wants to. But the people at the top of that field have taken it onboard.”

    You need to verify what I’ve said, about most of the people at the top of the field. Benjamin is working his way slowly though the conference book, he appreciates that he has to do that now. I suggest Confused does the same. (Maybe borrow his copy…?)

    OK, here’s the key point. Please refer to this specific point if you take issue with these things. The question is the origin of our laws of physics. They are not just any old set of laws, such as a randomly-generated, one-off, push the ‘laws generating button’ type set of laws.

    No-one denies that. Both sides of the argument agree with that, even you guys probably. You could push a button like that every second for billions of years without getting much at all – you’d probably get just space, maybe gas.

    Ever since we realised that, people have been looking for ways to explain our set of laws. Any serious attempt to even discuss the question of ‘God’ nowadays has to face up to the question of how they came about.

    And you’ll find that whatever theory you look at (universe with no beginning, expanding and contracting, baby universes as in Smolin etc), ALL WITHOUT EXCEPTION have our set of laws arising probabilistically. That is, if there was no intention behind them. Go on check, every good physicist knows this already.

    By the way, you say two untestable hypotheses are not needed, and that also just one is not needed. You’re wrong. It’s one or the other. We need one of them, because one has to be true.

    And although neither readily gives testable predictions, there’s a mass of evidence both ways. Yes, I said BOTH WAYS. Put your brains back in and think – look at the puzzle now in front of us, rather than running away from it, as you have been doing.

  122. You don’t know what my beliefs are, but thanks for asking. Well, thanks for asking for my reasons to believe the laws were intended. ‘Religious belief’ is not a dirty word (phrase) to me, as it clearly is to you, it seems because of your prejudice about it. You use words like ‘deists, theists, theologians’ as others have used insults that I wouldn’t care to mention here! But as you know, we both rather agree on the abilities of most of them, theologians anyway.

    In fact, we’ll probably also agree – the question of whether my beliefs come under ‘religion’ or not is purely a matter of semantics. And as bad philosophers spend too much of their time unnecessarily trying to define the meanings of words, I won’t bother to do that. It’s the same with the computer simulation that some eminent physicists have invoked to try to explain the fine tuning in the laws of physics. Is that religion? If not why not? It depends what kind of critter set up the simulation I guess?

    Can’t you see, these old ideas are gone now, they’re out of the window. The question of intention has entered rational debate in an entirely new way, because nowadays if we go strictly by what we observe, rather than what we imagine might be the case, then we find what looks on the face of it like intention. (Hmm, and someone we know says in a ghastly thread next door that he’s an evidentialist. Uh-oh..)

    Anyway, I’ll respond to your question later, thanks again for asking. Also Cathby, who I’ll also respond to when I can.

  123. David-

    “look at the puzzle now in front of us, rather than running away from it, as you have been doing.”

    to pay attention and become attending to the ‘present state of philosophy’ – along with the continuance of the comments – the commenters, as being a present state of philosphy, are such “strangers of the concept”.

  124. Terrible to have to quote myself, but I’ll also quote Dylan and Lennon in a minute, partly for fun. I said above “it is often perfectly scientific to look for intelligent intention behind something. For instance, military scientists might examine film of a bird to see if it is a small spyplane. A few days ago I found six or seven stones in a line while out walking – one could study them to see if someone intelligent placed them in a line, or if forces such as wind or tide did it.”

    There is nothing unscientific about examining an object to see if it was designed. We have found reason to do that with the universe, and that’s what we’re doing. (And as it happens, the only things that could make it look not designed are unobservable. This makes the case for examining it scientifically in this way even stronger.)

    That’s whay I keep saying leave religion out of the debate – because it’s irrelevant now. This is science. Even if there had never been any religion on this planet, we’d still be examining the universe for intention now. Or say on another planet, if there had never been any religion – when they reached the beginnings of advanced technology, they too would almost certainly notice the fine tuning. It’s universal – it’s there for all to see, across the many galaxies, if there’s intelligence elsewhere. And as intelligence has arisen at least three times on this planet in very different species, there probably is.

    If there’s a creator, then this is a puzzle, a conundrum, a challenge to intelligence everywhere. it stimulates out intelligence, as it’s doing now. The puzzle is about how the laws of physics came about, but the laws themselves also contain amazing puzzles. Look at quantum theory – I’m not one of the wishy-washy pseudoscience people who try to ascribe significance to quantum theory as if they knew the solution – we don’t know it. To me an unanswered question in physics is just that – an unanswered question.

    But if you look at the nature of the puzzle of interpreting quantum theory, and think about intelligence, you’ll see that it again looks like a challenge to intelligent species – they’ll all find it eventually, or most of the technological civilizations. And it looks much too interesting not to have been put together by an intelligence. Particularly as the alternative to saying it was designed as a puzzle is saying that it arose in a monkey-and-typewriter way, where the absolute minimum of interestingness would be expected in the result that finally comes out. And that’s even if you wait a vast amount of time before you get intelligent observers, you’d still get a bare minimum in their universe. This is borne out by the quote from Jim Hartle in the Weinstein paper (see above), which Benjamin quoted, about how we need to study the minimum scenario when we look at the odds.

    So I’m saying to philosophers, there may be a direct challenge to us out there. Take it on, and leave religion out – it’s just what blinded some of you, because what some of them say is so stupid.

    Here’s the first Lennon quote: “He’s as blind as he can be, just sees what he wants to see”, and Dylan: “How many times will a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn’t see” The other Lennon quote, from ‘I am the walrus’, frankly has less direct relevance: “man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allen Poe”

  125. hello James and Cathby, sorry. James, not sure what you mean, but perhaps that this page represents the state of current philosophy. Well, it does in one way of looking at it, but another way is to look at what the top people in the field are thinking.

    Cathby, here are those points one by one:
    Re Paul Davies.. I was hoping for a specifically philosophical suggestion (given where we are!) After all, from what I hear, Davies doesn’t end up with the idea of a Creator either, does he?
    Paul Davies is to me a good philosopher. He argued for design through the ’80s and ’90s. By the time of ‘the Goldilocks enigma’ he was standing back and comparing all the different possibilities, and exploring new ideas as well, such as the quantum time loop, in which we bring ourselves into being in the past, by making observations now. To me this idea was born as a desperate remedy for quantum theory, and I think the real answer will be far more elegant and beautiful.
    Re Robin Collins, he was chosen to write the fine-tuning section for the Blackwell Guide to Natural Theology, and supposedly an expert on it.
    I read what he wrote in the other book, see above. I don’t think a Christian can easily be an expert on it – some of the implications contradict their beliefs.
    Re choices, yes, we have design and chance (not entirely a dichotomy – a painter can create a painting by throwing paint, combining design and chance).
    That’s different. There still either was a painter or there wasn’t.
    But you seem to be moving from that dichotomy to one between a multiverse vs a designed universe. Given there are a multitude of other possibilities, how do you justify that move? My understanding is the multiverse idea is intimately tied up with string theory – string theory could be passed over or disproved.
    The ‘multitude of possibilities’ all come under one heading or the other. It’s about how the laws of physics got how they are. The multiverse is in many theories, and in many people’s beliefs. It’s not just string theory.

  126. Well, both science and philosophy can examine the universe for clues, as to which of the two possibilities is true. Of course some of it goes outside the realm of science. It’s often philosophy. But Paul Davies in ‘Universe or multiverse?’ talks about checking if the numbers for the fine tuning land well within the required regions, rather than just near the edges of them. It gets specific, mathematical, and scientific. With the numbers so big, there’s a lot we can check, using a statistical approach. What PD has talked about is related to the minimalism I’ve mentioned checking for – it can be looked for in many areas.

    And many universes, if we’re being like that, gets unscientific. Logical positivism, and strict thinking, would potentially rule the multiverse out as not exisiting, because you can’t observe it.

    You must understand, that’s why they’re so touchy about it. Their only lifeline to non-design is technically a bit unscientific. Now you’re from a generation (Benjamin is anyway) of younger people who grew up with that cloud affecting everything they heard, everything they were taught.

    Opinions are formed on information. if you had different information, you’d form a different opinion.

    But I didn’t say they were totally silent about it. Read between the lines. I don’t have my copy of ‘universe or multiverse’ here, but maybe Benjamin could look up what Lee Smolin says about design. He only nods to it, and he of course argues the other way, but you get confirmation that it’s in the picture, which it certainly is. Lee Smolin is the most intelligent atheist I’ve ever encountered. he was also honest enough to mention it.

    But anyway, it’s early days, and we’re just looking for clues. Everything has changed, the old days are behind us now. Let’s see what we find…

  127. James, see earlier posts, Cathby tried to say there’s no clear dividing line between chance and intention. I was just showing that in relation to the laws of physics, there is. They came about in one of two entirely separate ways.

  128. Either possibility, intention or multiverse, might turn out to be verifiable, but both look far from that now.

    But there are ways to find evidence for either. I think making a theory like M theory, with mutiverse attached, is not the best way to get evidence for the multiverse. A theory that can’t be tested isn’t much help.

    Instead, I think evidence for the multiverse could be found by looking for minimalism in our set of laws of physics. If they came about in monkey-and-typewriter fashion, there should be an economy in the number of ‘coincidences’ used to do what they did – ie make intelligent observers. That might be found, in some way that no-one has so far thought of.

    And looking for evidence the other way, for intention, it’s non-minimalism, non-economy. But in the laws themselves. Now I haven’t done that. That would be good.

    I’ve only shown that interestingness, and challenging puzzles that look created by intelligence for intelligence, are far beyond the minimum expected in those areas. There’s also great art, and other wonderful things that arose out of this set of laws – beyond the minimum, and the kind of things that intelligence might be interested in setting off.

    But when we get down to looking at the laws themselves closely, later this century when we’ve thrown off our prejudices a bit, we might find detailed statistical evidence there, one way or the other.

  129. PS As for logical positivism, I don’t believe we should apply it now, and I don’t think the views of those who came up with it are relevant. (Would they be told what’s happened since, and why the scientific world has had to throw out their ideas?)

  130. I’d better answer one question I left out, and then I really think we should leave it. I hope didn’t offend anyone, if so, sorry. You asked why I personally believe the universe was intended. The answer is an enormous number of reasons, to be found in many areas and at many levels.

  131. Smolin does consider design in passing. At first, Smolin puts design outside of the realm of scientific investigation by definition. (Wrongly, I think.) But then he also discusses design in the meat of the essay under the heading of the “theological anthropic principle”. He suggests that an interpretation of design would have some explanatory force if there were no plausible competing explanations. But (he argues) since there are better explanations — indeed, potentially falsifiable explanations — there’s no need for the theological principle.

    He need not have bothered. If we’re going to entertain theology as a potential alternative theory, then I must demand that my “chance” style of explanation — that the “beginning-of-time-is-the-beginning-of-possibility” — be given equal air time.

    Anyway. Smolin rejects the anthropic principle as unfalsifiable and/or incapable of generating predictions. This moots quite a lot of the conversation we’ve had here in two ways. First, unlike us, he insists upon using the principle of falsifiability if it is available, while we’ve set a much lower standard of discussion, for the purposes of doing philosophy. Second, and perhaps most remarkably, he has jettisoned the anthropic principle (in strong form, anyway), and replaced it with what he calls the “anthropic observation”. To carry on with the baseball theme, while it seems sort of plausible to think that Smolin has gotten past first base (since he discusses both design and non-design stories), he’s not in the anthropic ballpark.

    I thought this paragraph was illuminating: “A multiverse formed by black hole bouncing looks like a family tree. Each universe has an ancestor, which is another universe. Our universe has at least 10^18 children; if they are like ours, they each have roughly the same number of children. The structure of a multiverse formed by eternal inflation is much simpler. Each universe has the same ancestor, which is the primordial vacuum. Universes themselves have no descendants.” So, after a fashion, Smolin is following our friend Edgar Allen — at least in the minimal sense that there’s a genealogy of universes. (One would imagine that if we were to somehow put a pin in the singularity and burst it like a balloon, a whole new universe would burst outwards into the parent universe, much to the dismay of startled spectators). On Smolin’s account, proponents of the eternal inflation theory sound more like they’re endorsing the idea of parallel universes.

    What I appreciate about this essay is the (occasional) clarity of language and the insistence upon responsible explanation. Smolin doubts that the theory of eternal inflation is anything more than an interesting story. Instead, Smolin argues that bouncing black hole singularities generate new universes, and suggests that our own universe may have been made in this way. And he believes that his view, cosmological natural selection, is falsifiable.

  132. @David Martin

    “Paul Davies is to me a good philosopher. He argued for design through the ’80s and ’90s. ”
    I enjoyed his book on time – but why is he a “good philosopher”?

    “The ‘multitude of possibilities’ all come under one heading or the other. It’s about how the laws of physics got how they are. The multiverse is in many theories, and in many people’s beliefs. It’s not just string theory.”
    Indeed – and it isn’t in other people’s theories. We are talking philosophy, not the modish scientific hypothesis of the moment. What logical reason is there to exclude random probability, or constraints underlying the constants or cosmological natural selection or eternal inflation?

    I’m not saying you are wrong, I am saying you are giving me no reason or argument to think you are right.

    And pointing at the physicists isn’t a reason – they don’t all think multiverses are plausible and they know the science better than I can ever hope to.

    “You must understand, that’s why they’re so touchy about it. Their only lifeline to non-design is technically a bit unscientific. Now you’re from a generation (Benjamin is anyway) of younger people who grew up with that cloud affecting everything they heard, everything they were taught.

    Opinions are formed on information. if you had different information, you’d form a different opinion.”

    Well, first by your own words, opinions are formed also from opinions – otherwise why would atheism cloud the thinking of physicists? I also think you do them a mis-service – it’s not so long ago the assumption was that the universe was eternal. Science still managed to move from that position to the Big Bang.

    And really, even if you established a Designer, so what? It doesn’t mean he/she/it is God, or a deity. You could be an atheist and believe in design with no contradiction.

    “Cathby tried to say there’s no clear dividing line between chance and intention. I was just showing that in relation to the laws of physics, there is. They came about in one of two entirely separate ways.”

    Logically, no there isn’t. Let’s say in actual fact God created the multiverse. There God would have created our universe and its constants through chance. Or suppose God created laws underlying those expressed in our universe, constraining but not determining the constants. Open your mind! 🙂

    “Instead, I think evidence for the multiverse could be found by looking for minimalism in our set of laws of physics. If they came about in monkey-and-typewriter fashion, there should be an economy in the number of ‘coincidences’ used to do what they did – ie make intelligent observers. That might be found, in some way that no-one has so far thought of.

    And looking for evidence the other way, for intention, it’s non-minimalism, non-economy. But in the laws themselves. Now I haven’t done that. That would be good. ”

    No, I don’t really think you can take that approach. Look at the last great argument from Design. Paley (to take a pretty stringent author on this) gave numerous examples of how various features of animals were complex and gave every appearance of design. His point was that it is massively implausible an eye would arise by pure chance. But Evolution by Natural Selection is not pure chance and can explain how an eye (or other structure) can arise without a designer.

    Similarly, however implausible or complex the constants underlying the universe are, that does not mean that they must be designed. They could be one example of an infinite number of sets of constants; they could be arrived at via some underlying process.

    I’m saying it’s not evidence, not saying it isn’t a potentially useful process – it might spark off some valuable insight. But then, so might LSD.

  133. David,

    Re: Laws of Physics – I think Herder got a good beginning of a critical examination of the Laws of physics by referring to them as

    Fame laws.

  134. Both Benjamin’s post and Cathby’s show me that I haven’t explained the central point well enough.

    If our set of laws did not arise from intention, then there is only one general mechanism that could have shaped them.

    There are many scenarios in which this mechanism could work, and they include Smolin’s ideas, eternal inflation, a universe without an origin point, multiverses of all kinds, the rebounding universe, etc.

    In all of them, our laws of physics would have arisen from ‘many tries’. There would have been a very large number of previous sets of laws. These would have included a huge number of barren sets of laws, which failed to create intelligent obersevers.

    If you can think of a way that our set of laws was the first set of laws of physics to come into existence, then please, tell me.

    The ‘many tries’ principle, which is the engine that drives ALL these theories, is exactly like the many tries that our monkey with his typewriter would have to make, before he finally produces something minimal.

    All the theories you’ve mentioned are attempts to provide alternatives to design, and they all use one mechanism, because there is no other. Smolin tried to get universes to evolve, but there’s no parallel with Paley and Darwin. There’s no survival mechanism for universes that create intelligent life. His theory still uses the ‘many tries’ principle, as all these ideas do.

    Smolin’s theory has been effectively demolished by Susskind, in the famous Smolin-Susskind debate. Susskind shows that the idea of blackholes transmitting information to their ‘offspring’ is contrary to what little physics we have in that area. So it has no foundation coming out of existing physics – and it would be highly speculative even if it did. But without that basic connection to existing physics, its one lifeline is cut. But even if it were viable in terms of the physics, it would still use the ‘many tries’ principle, so it would still have the monkey-and-typewriter aspect – the laws would have arisen probabilistically. So the minimalism I’ve mentioned would still be expected, and the statistical approach I’ve suggested would still be relevant.

    As Benjamin says, Smolin claims that it is testable. Much of the conference book is taken up without discussion about whether multiverse theories are testable, and for good reason – it affects the question of whether atheism is now a faith like design. We may find ourselves with two alternative faiths, neither of them testable.

    Here’s what I’d say about the question of whether multiverse theories are testable. It’s not impossible to devise a test, but it’s impossible to make it unambiguous. It could always be something else. That’s what they found with the original multiverse theory from the 1950s, which was an attempt to evade the problems of quantum theory. Ever since Everett’s time, people have found that a solution of that kind can’t be tested rigourously, because the result will always be ambiguous. It always might be something other that some parallel universe. The statistical approach I’ve mentioned is, to me, the best way of zooming in on theae ideas. It involves studying our own universe for clues about where it came from.

  135. Sorry, a typo, it should be “Much of the conference book is taken up WITH discussion about whether multiverse theories are testable”.

  136. Ceremony.

    What was the topic again, David?

  137. Benjamin S Nelson

    Oh, but David, don’t sell yourself short! You’ve been wonderfully clear about that. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that you missed the point of my comment in the previous post. What I have suggested, in my glib remarks, is that if we’re permitted to use the same low epistemic standard that makes it possible to take Design seriously, then we might as well go ahead and include dogmatic a priori just-so story about the necessity of the laws during the initial state, too. And why not? As you’ve make clear, we’re doing philosophy, not making falsifiable theories.

  138. Sentiment?

  139. The standards are not low like you say. In physics, when we first get new evidence for something, we examine it, and look for more clues. It may take a long time before a testable theory comes along. So a testable theory might come along that points in either direction – chance or intention.

    Meanwhile, I’ve shown that it’s a scientific process to examine the universe for intention behind its laws – this is strengthened by the fact that the alternative to design is unverifiable, for now at least.

    But when this process isn’t science, it’s philosophy. Now don’t put philosophy down (don’t sell yourself short!), it can be mathematical and rigourous. The statistical approach I’ve suggested is specific and mathematical, whether you call it physics or philosophy.

    Going to another point, it’ll help make sense of what has happened if you understand that many writers during the ’80s – and since – have said that if religion made any sense at all, then they’d plump for it, given what the fine tuning does.

    But religion didn’t make any sense. The gulf that opened between rational people and ‘intuitive’ or ‘expressive’ people at that point could only be bridged by an explanation of religion that really worked.

    According to my view, religion doesn’t make sense to philosophers because it doesn’t go via the rational mind. Religion bypasses the rational mind, so you often get nonsense coming out of the rational mind, even though the religious person is doing well with the side of their practise that matters. If you look at the words of religions, you’ll probably be missing the point. It’s not about words.

    But you do get poetry, loose analogies, the language of the subconscious mind. People who take the old writings too literally get it really wrong.

    The huge irony is that in modern America, two groups of people are making the same mistake. Creations take the words of religion too literally, and atheist philosophers take the words of religion too literally. That’s why the latter group think it’s a load of nonsense.

  140. Sorry, in the last para it should be ‘creationists take the words of religion too literally’.

  141. The only way of removing the problem of having to explain a first cause is this way.

    If the first cause is a creator, then our approach of looking for the origins of things is not necessarily relevant. We’re always looking for the origins of things because we live in a universe that has time in it, it has cause and effect.

    But if there’s a creator, then we’d be applying these principles from within our world to somewhere genuinely outside it, where they wouldn’t necessarily apply. So that’s the only first cause that might not need explaining – all others would sooner or later need some explanation.

  142. Benjamin S Nelson

    You’re repeating yourself quite a lot there, David — unnecessarily, I think. I get where you’re coming from, in broad strokes. And to be sure, I agree from the outset that, in principle, atheism can be proven wrong, and Design could be proven right. Science and philosophy are continuous, in that sense. So let’s not get lost on issues where we agree.

    To be clear, the present problem is this: insofar as we think that Design or The Necessary Universe are viable theories, our epistemic standards have to be pretty low. Both of these stories fail to provide the minimal requirement that Smolin insists we recognize — the requirement of a probabilistic mechanism. As he puts it, “There must be a physical mechanism which converts the improbable to the probable, i.e., that raises the probability that a universe such as ours was chosen from infinitesimal to order unity.”

    You’ve implicitly suggested that only the Design theories are exempt from the expectation of having to produce a probabilistic model. That’s how you’re able to squeeze out the Necessary Universe story: since it is not Design, and it is not probabilistic, it is a non-starter. But this raises the question: why? Why on earth should we hold a double standard for Design and The Necessary Universe? As far as I can tell, you haven’t given any reason — you just suggest that it’s an unwritten rule that it cannot be considered.

    So you need to give reasons why we ought to believe that Design gets a free pass while every other logical possibility doesn’t. For example, you might argue that the Necessary Universe story is sort of unintuitive or weird, where at least the Design story has intuitive pull. And you might return to the analogy to the stones in your garden: it would be perhaps a bit strange to say that “they are this way because they had to be”, as opposed to “the previous house-owner must’ve put some stones here for a garden”. But once we stop trying to explain gardens and stones, and start trying to explain the universe as a whole, a wider vista of possible explanatory strategies opens up. And even then, when you consider it in the abstract, you can find that the Necessary Universe story isn’t all that weird — we can talk about fate and destiny, after all, without necessarily bringing in any preconceptions about there being a designer.

    I hate to be cynical, but I can’t help but think that if the only reason Design is even a viable option is because religion is an influence on human affairs. It seems to me that if Design really did have some kind of traction as an independent reason, then it is only the same traction that fatalism has. Perhaps if we lived in a world where organized religion were replaced by Stoic fatalism, the Necessary Universe story would find itself in bold print in the “Universe or Multiverse?” volume, and the Design story would be neglected entirely.

    Of course, needless to say, the Necessary Universe story doesn’t have a leg up on the theories endorsed by the other contributors to the volume (M-theory, third way theories, and the like). They’re not on the same level, because most of those essays make use of multiple, independent sources of evidence in order to explain as much as they can. Creationism and fatalism, on the other hand, are just stories made up in the armchair.

    I think you are putting yourself in a tough position. On the one hand, you clearly dislike religion, and clearly think physicist-theologians like Robin Collins are off base. Yet on the other hand, you’re straining to make sure that Design is recognized as a part of the debate. And that’s fine. All I’m saying is: from what I can see so far, we have no reason to do that. Either you can include a fatalistic story, or you exclude design — there’s no middle ground.

  143. I doubt that “intelligibility” is the problem with Design theories in quite the way that is being proposed. The problem is actually that Design theory is only embarrassing when it is intelligible. That’s why theologians (and a certain breed of academic) obfuscates their central claims — to preserve their dignity.

  144. Ah. In that sense, we are of one mind on this matter.

  145. “If our set of laws did not arise from intention, then there is only one general mechanism that could have shaped them.

    There are many scenarios in which this mechanism could work, and they include Smolin’s ideas, eternal inflation, a universe without an origin point, multiverses of all kinds, the rebounding universe, etc.

    In all of them, our laws of physics would have arisen from ‘many tries’. There would have been a very large number of previous sets of laws. These would have included a huge number of barren sets of laws, which failed to create intelligent obersevers.

    If you can think of a way that our set of laws was the first set of laws of physics to come into existence, then please, tell me.”

    Is dumb luck entirely out of the question? Honest question.

    I understand your position. What I don’t understand is why an array of “barren universes” is such a problem. Neither do I understand why the fact we don’t understand how the complexity of how physical laws came about means that they are more likely to be designed.

    The analogy with Paley and Darwin is NOT that universes must evolve, but that Paley demonstrated clearly how complex organisms were but was wrong that they were designed. (He came SO close too). Examining complexity of laws in my opinion cannot prove a designer without an appeal to incredulity.

    “But if there’s a creator, then we’d be applying these principles from within our world to somewhere genuinely outside it, where they wouldn’t necessarily apply. So that’s the only first cause that might not need explaining – all others would sooner or later need some explanation.”

    No, I don’t see that. If the multiverse always existed, why would it need further explanation?

    And as you implicitly say, positing a Designer doesn’t mean we have reached a final explanation either. That’s a very old criticism of the Argument from Design – all you can posit based on it is that some entity exists with the power to design the universe. Could be a group of argumentative wizards for all we know (Terry Pratchett Knows All).

    If we proved a Designer, we would in fact, short of the Designer intervening, be eternally shut off from knowledge of what was the first cause.

    “According to my view, religion doesn’t make sense to philosophers because it doesn’t go via the rational mind. Religion bypasses the rational mind, so you oftenwaste get nonsense coming out of the rational mind, even though the religious person is doing well with the side of their practise that matters. If you look at the words of religions, you’ll probably be missing the point. It’s not about words”

    I’m dubious about the dichotomy of religion and reason here – I think reason does play a part and has to play a part. But if, as you say, religion bypasses the rational mind, then so will a proof of a Designer’s existence via fine-tuning. I don’t think any faith can come solely via such a proof, at most it might be more intellectually respectible (but even that I’d be cynical about).

  146. Thanks Curious, much appreciated. I have to go soon, but will try to respond to these posts. Benjamin’s post is hard to understand, and I don’t even know what he means by some of the terms in context. It seems to blur what has been said so far. This sentence seems to take some terms I introduced, and give them different meanings: “Both of these stories fail to provide the minimal requirement that Smolin insists we recognize — the requirement of a probabilistic mechanism”.

    And here he’s making the same mistake as Cathby does, which I’ll get to: “On the one hand, you clearly dislike religion..” You should know different from previous posts. I just don’t think that the thinking side of religion is relevant, and I dislike the contribution of the thinking side of religion to this kind of discussion and other discussions.

    I like the feeling side of religion very much, and I know the difference between the two sides. That’s why I can at times perhaps translate between two groups who keep misunderstanding each other – rational people and loosely speaking expressive people. These roughly correspond to people who go by the conscious rational mind, and people who go by the abstract feeling in the subconscious mind.

    You’ve used the word ‘religion’ to mean merely the thinking side, as Cathby does later. That’s missing the entire point of religion.

    I don’t think there’s much need to refer back to earlier philosophy relating to these questions – the new set of clues is very specific, and contains a lot of new information. It really makes all previous thinking potentially irrelevant.

    But nevertheless, I was trying to answer an old question, which Curious twice asked about – basically where did God come from? That’s the question of how do we explain a first cause, and I pointed out that our attempts to seek the origins of things, which are deeply ingrained beause we live in a world where things have causes, beginnings, origins, then become irrelevant.

    But in the multiverse (again, Cathby mentioned this), we have to see the other universes as similar to ours in some ways. We’ve had to make them our own territory a bit. They need time, they need cause and effect, and the multiverse itself which they come from needs various things that make the first cause problem fail to go away.

    And the first cause problem still arises if the multiverse goes back infinitely in time. we still need to know why it is there at all, or “what breathes fire into the equations”, as Stephen Hawking put it during the ’80s, before minds started to close on these questions (partly because creationists were so annoying and so vociferous, which put a lot of people off).

    Cathby has just a few points that need clarifying, it seems to me. She says “Is dumb luck entirely out of the question? Honest question.” No, see above. Curious asked the same, it was referred to as possibility ‘3’. It’s just so unlikely that philosophers ignore it – well beyond a trillion to one shot.

    She says “What I don’t understand is why an array of “barren universes” is such a problem”. It isn’t. It’s a consequence of one of the two general possibilities I mentioned as being perfectly acceptable – many universes. I’ve argued for the other possibility, but either could be true.

    She says “Neither do I understand why the fact we don’t understand how the complexity of how physical laws came about means that they are more likely to be designed.” It’s nothing to do with complexity. It’s to do with suitability for intelligent life. That’s also why there’s no parallel with Paley etc.

    “And as you implicitly say, positing a Designer doesn’t mean we have reached a final explanation either”. I agree. That’s what I said. I said we should now rethink all our preconceptions about what a designer might be like, looking at the new clues (and not looking at old books).

    “I think reason does play a part and has to play a part.” Of course it does, when they finally let it.

    I really do have to go. I hope this has been worthwhile for you, as it has been for me.

  147. Benjamin S Nelson

    Sorry about that David, you’re right — it’s probably not going to be very helpful for me to spring out a Smolin quote out of context. My post above might make more sense when you have a chance to grab your copy of “U or M?”.

    Apologize again to your girlfriend for me. Here at Talking Philosophy we specialize in ruining vacations!

  148. Benjamin S Nelson

    As an aside — there’s a rough and ready distinction you can make between modernist religion (which is about beliefs) and spiritualism (which is about feelings, or perhaps world-orientation). I take it that you have no problem with spiritualism, while you have a pretty clear problem with modernist religion. The only question that remains is in what sense mere spiritualism ought to be considered relevant to the social phenomenon that we call “religion”.

  149. Benjamin’s point is worth responding to, as I’d been thinking about something today that should have been said, and both can be done at once.

    The point about God being ‘outside cause and effect’ is wrong. I didn’t say God is outside cause and effect, just that being around cause and effect has made us naturally ask where God came from.

    For the other point – to me modernist religion is not ‘about beliefs’, except to those who fail to understand it. That’s what I said in the previous post. Thinkers look at the thinking side, the words. Some respond only to that side, and miss the rest, which is the main bit.

    In all religions, words and phrases are often repeated. The words themselves don’t matter, it’s a cue for the subconscious mind to go into a certain state. Once familiar, the set of cues will work. We don’t know what that state is (and measuring brain activity will not tell us much about it at all). All religions use smells and sounds – incense, bells and chimes. They’re very evocative, and again are cues for the subconscious mind to go into a certain state.

    That’s what I meant by the feeling side – abstract feeling, without words. That’s what we can pick up directly, and only that. Anything with words in it – that’s just people’s words. So to me there’s no such thing as ‘the word of God’, though I respect the views of some who think otherwise.

    Religion has beautiful culture in it, which people need. I don’t want these discussions to undermine that. I’m trying to defend something that has been misunderstood and is under attack. People need a framework to hang things on, which reminds them of the spiritual feeling, and helps them get there. The framework doesn’t matter as much as it might seem, as long as it’s one that works. Some will always use it for other purposes, and abuse it. Sadly, these things are very open to abuse. But many will still find what they need there.

  150. Benjamin S Nelson

    There’s quite a bit more worth responding to than just that. But anyway.

    On this specific point — it’s an argument you’ll have to make with anthropologists and historians. Karen Armstrong is a prominent example of a theologian who has written and sold a zillion books at least partially on the basis of the idea that religion in modernity is a matter of belief and dogma. The idea is that organized religion underwent a sort of counter-revolution against the Enlightenment movement, and hence felt the need to defend itself by the renewed force of dogma. This is as opposed to the supposedly touchy-feeling apophatic religion that Armstrong thinks reigned in premodern times.

    So you’re endorsing something like an apophatic defence of religion. And that’s fine. But it’s not up to you what other people do, and it’s not just fundamentalists who think take these claims literally (instead of just being interesting trigger-words that prompt us to meditate). And, in a historical sense, the question of what other people do is the only thing that is relevant when we talk about “modernist religion”.

    Just to connect this to the original post: the spiritualist side which you have in mind is largely what I mean to refer to when I talk about bullshit claims. They support any, all, or no interpretations in order to achieve their point.

  151. You’re both looking too much at the words.

    Curious, you’re looking at the words, not thinking about their meaning. I said that God didn’t need a cause due to being outside the principles of this universe, but that doesn’t stop God from having effects. You took the phrase ’cause and effect’ too literally, and started applying it in places where it doesn’t apply.

    Benjamin, you’re still looking at the tip of the iceberg, how long will you go on doing that? That’s just a history of religious thought you’re talking about. It’s like examining soundwave patterns on a screen to try to understand music. You’re missing the bit that counts.

    You can’t keep taking the easy way out and look only in your own terms, you must admit that whatever it is, it’s something outside of that. Have a little respect for Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, Jung, and many others who have believed in a God. You have become lax in your approach because the present climate makes you feel able to.

    But that’s a temporary thing, as we haven’t yet faced up to the new information. At present there is a reaction to what we just discovered about the laws of physics going on, because it puts science on the spot, hence Dawkins etc. But it’s short term. Now I must go, the discussion can continue without me, best wishes.

  152. Benjamin S Nelson

    David, you’re making more of the history than I intended. The reason I pointed out the history was so that I could make sure that you’re cognizant of what was meant by “modernist religion”. I do this because it wasn’t altogether clear from your objection above that I had successfully conveyed the point. That is, you took the distinction I made to be a distorted analogue of your proposed dichotomy (between feeling-religion and thinking-religion), under the assumption that modernist religion was not belief-centered. But your assumption at odds with conventional wisdom (assuming we believe Karen Armstrong), and — more importantly — it’s at odds with what I meant by my use of the phrase.

    I certainly do understand the spiritual aspect. You’re presenting a position that is an echo of a phase I went through, and have largely left behind. But that’s not a point I really want to go into, because those sorts of discussions will inevitably lead to autobiography instead of philosophy.

    I certainly agree that my intellectual climate most certainly does dictate my views on the current state of the philosophy of physics in a pretty straightforward way. That’s just because I’m being prudent by deferring to experts who I trust. But that doesn’t mean I have categorically deferred to them. For instance, I criticize Smolin for giving Design more attention than other equally coherent proposals.

    At any rate it’s been a pleasure talking to you!

  153. Curious, well I’m glad we explored it, thanks.

    Benjamin, the people who emphasise the thinking side (your ‘experts’ perhaps) deliberately choose to attack a weak target, like Dawkins and creationism. This is cowardly.

    You have a strong opponent in the posts above, take issue with them if you must, rather than picking fights with dwarves, and doing what thinkers nowadays often do – take a weak view, knock it down easily, then claim victory. Hence the common reluctance to admit that the thinking side is not all there is, so visible in what you say.

  154. PS I accept that you’re aware of the spiritual side, but you seemed to try to keep the argument in an arena where you felt you could win easily. Anyway, thanks for the discussion.

  155. Einstein said “… one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a Spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a Spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.” (Einstein 1936, as cited in Dukas and Hoffmann, Albert Einstein: The Human Side,
    Princeton University Press, 1979, 33).

    “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” [“Der erste Trunk aus dem Becher der Naturwissenschaft macht atheistisch, aber auf dem Grund des Bechers wartet Gott.”] (Heisenberg, as cited in Hildebrand 1988, 10).

    Schroedinger claims that science is a creative game with rules, which are designed by God: “In the presentation of a scientific problem, the other player is the good Lord. He has not only set the problem but also has devised the rules of the game – but they are not completely known, half of them are left for you to discover or to deduce.” “The uncertainty is how many of the rules God himself has permanently ordained, and how many apparently are caused by your own mental inertia, while the solution generally becomes possible only through freedom from its limitations. This is perhaps the most exciting thing in the game.” (Schroedinger, as cited in Moore 1990, 348).

    These 20th century people – also Max Planck – didn’t know we’d discover the fine tuning in the laws of physics by 1979. Put their views alongside the fine tuning, you get an even stronger understanding. Your atheist opinions were formed as spinoffs from the initial reaction to that unavoidable evidence, which to some seemed to limit science. But it doesn’t – it does quite the opposite.

  156. Einstein was just trying to disassociate himself from the dumb side of religion. You’ve seen me doing exactly the same thing above.

    That’s why he criticised Theosophy and spiritualism in one quote you posted – the current nonsense during the 1950s. That’s also why he distinguishes between dumb and smart religion when he says:

    “The pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.”

    The intelligent people who believe in some sort of God always have detractors who try to bunch them together with the dumb ones. These are from the middle layer – the atheists.

  157. s. wallerstein (ex amos)


    Do you have any hard evidence that religious believers are stupid, ordinary atheists of middle range intelligence and those who share your beliefs of superior intelligence, besides the indubitable and self-evident fact that you yourself are so brilliant that you illuminate the night as well as our poor benighted blog?

  158. Well I’ll leave it there. There are two different kinds of people who believe in a designer – one is the kind who needs answers to questions, and the other is the kind who can’t form the questions, and often doesn’t need answers.

    The latter kind are often luckier and happier. The spiritual side is accesible to them, because they don’t know about the major flaws in the thinking they’ve been given. Where there is education, the flaws become apparent, then people need answers. Have tried to give some in relation to the new situation, in case that’s of interest. Best wishes.

  159. s. wallerstein (ex amos)

    Actually, David, I suspect that we all profit from and enjoy your posts, but you weaken your own interesting and generally forceful arguments by disqualifying others.

    Your arguments are good enough on their own that there is no need to
    rate the intellligence or lack of intelligence of those with other points of view.

  160. Well, I should have worded it differently, you’re right. It was more about education than intelligence. I don’t disqualify anyone though, whatever their view or level of education.

  161. I don’t see it that way, but there are education levels that reveal different things. Not only in religion, where as I said, less education often means less obstacles between a person and the spiritual side, while more education means more questions that need answering. And for good reason, because the thinking falls to pieces before your eyes as you learn more.

    But also in science, there are levels of education that reveal different things. Hence Heisenberg’s “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting”.

    And it also applies in a more general way. As we learn about the universe, first we become atheists due to Darwin’s discovery, then 150 years later we decide it’s designed due to finding the fine tuning, as a huge number of physicists did during the ’80s.

    They’re very quiet now, their careers are at risk. You only get one or two who are crazy enough to write on discussion sites.. getting on a plane tomorrow, maybe talk another time.

  162. At least you’re getting some humour in there, like the point about how it goes with all intelligence, dolphins and elephants etc.. (even if the joke’s on me).

  163. @David

    “Cathby has just a few points that need clarifying, it seems to me. She says “Is dumb luck entirely out of the question? Honest question.” No, see above. Curious asked the same, it was referred to as possibility ‘3′. It’s just so unlikely that philosophers ignore it – well beyond a trillion to one shot.”

    Which philosophers? I’ve read atheist philosophers who don’t ignore it. And again, I ask, HOW do we know it is a trillion to one shot? I haven’t read the physicists, I’ve only read the philosophers of religion and I haven’t seen an answer to this question.

    “She says “Neither do I understand why the fact we don’t understand how the complexity of how physical laws came about means that they are more likely to be designed.” It’s nothing to do with complexity. It’s to do with suitability for intelligent life. That’s also why there’s no parallel with Paley etc.”

    Well then, in that case I can definitely see no reason to hope looking at the universal constants will give any evidence that they were fine-tuned.

    And I don’t think there is no parallel with Paley. He saw something that he could find no likely explanation for, other than design. Because of what happened to that conclusion, I would be loath to echo it by saying fine-tuning must be caused be design because we can conceive of no likely alternative to arrive at it. That is as likely to be due to our lack of imagination as anything else.

    ““And as you implicitly say, positing a Designer doesn’t mean we have reached a final explanation either”. I agree. That’s what I said. I said we should now rethink all our preconceptions about what a designer might be like, looking at the new clues (and not looking at old books).”

    What new clues? If we assume a Designer what can we argue from the universal constants other than that they were set by someone with the power to set them. That is all. All those “old books” point that out.

    ““I think reason does play a part and has to play a part.” Of course it does, when they finally let it.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this.

    “And here he’s making the same mistake as Cathby does, which I’ll get to: “On the one hand, you clearly dislike religion..” You should know different from previous posts. I just don’t think that the thinking side of religion is relevant, and I dislike the contribution of the thinking side of religion to this kind of discussion and other discussions.

    I like the feeling side of religion very much, and I know the difference between the two sides. That’s why I can at times perhaps translate between two groups who keep misunderstanding each other – rational people and loosely speaking expressive people. These roughly correspond to people who go by the conscious rational mind, and people who go by the abstract feeling in the subconscious mind.

    You’ve used the word ‘religion’ to mean merely the thinking side, as Cathby does later. That’s missing the entire point of religion.”

    No, I don’t believe religion means just the “thinking side”. In fact that’s almost exactly the opposite of what I think.

    But this discussion is not about faith. It’s about proof – and hence about thinking.

    This is exemplified in the quotes you give upthread. I have no issue with the idea Einstein had a Deist conception of the universe. But so what?

    I find the world amazing – I’m sure all those scientists did too. But that certainty they had (based on your quotes) that something else was there was not necessarily a rational thing. What you quote could equally come from the emotions – from a sense of awe and wonder. That means that those quotes don’t give any reason to believe the Argument from Design, an argument appealing to reason, is successful.

    To be honest, I doubt whether, even if it were proved, it would produce one more spiritual person as you describe. Ever hear the story of Russell, who walking along one day suddenly had the realisation, “The ontological argument [for God’s existence] is sound”? He changed his mind about that later but he didn’t become spiritual in the interim.

  164. Cathyby, you haven’t understood the basic premiss, so stuff comes out that goes off at various tangents. You also put words in my mouth I didn’t say or think. You must read around the subject – the apparent fine tuning has been well established for thirty years, and there is a lot of consensus on it. You said you’d get “The Goldilocks enigma”, well.. good idea, and before anything much else I’d say.

    You say “HOW do we know it is a trillion to one shot?” and say you still think it’s about complexity. It’s absolutely nothing to do with complexity.

    The problem is this. The universe came with a set of laws of physics. These include a set of constants, and what boil down to numbers. No-one knows where they came from. We all used to assume the laws of physics came about randomly. Even those who believed in a God thought that they COULD have come about randomly.

    But now both sides of the argument know that we can’t assume that any more. We now know how many parameters had to land in certain places to make what we call life – intelligent life – possible. You can derive approximate numbers for the odds, because each parameter has a range of possible values, and the odds against getting what intelligent life needed (stable enough environments for it to develop, plus the very unlikely conditions needed) are enormous.

    If you generated a single set of laws randomly, the chances of getting anything stable at all are incredibly low. This applies however you calculate it – the odds get a little higher or a little lower depending how you do it, but they’re always huge. And you can speculate about other forms of life, but it hardly dents the basic problem. Atheists know this. They believe in a multiverse, which would explain it. They have been working on multiverse theories.

    It’s only hard to establish this with people who are unwilling to find out what we know. They like to feel that they can make the universe into anything they want to, because they had this feeling before they encountered the apparent fine tuning. “How many times will a man turn his head, and pretend that he still doesn’t see?” Dylan.

    What you say about Russell is ridiculous, and shows the same determination to blur the issues that I’ve seen in others here. The fact that he briefly found rational reasons to believe in a designer doesn’t mean that he should become spiritual. You know this perfectly well, and are being dishonest with yourself, it seems to me.

    And quoting the 20th century physicists as I did was just to show that there’s an intelligent way of believing in a God, as well as a naive way. As Einstein said, the two ways are rather different. That’s all I meant there. Now I must go, really. Please do the reading, which Benjamin at least is doing.

  165. Sorry, you were making a rather different point whe you mentioned Russell. You were saying that even if we took this onboard as knowledge, it wouldn’t necessarily take us to the spiritual side.

    That’s true, but give it time. We’ve only just found out these things, and are going through a brief period of denial. Hence ‘new atheism’. Give it a few decades to sink in, see where we get to. The knowledge side will go hand in hand with the spiritual side, just as it did for those 20th century physicists I quoted.

  166. You’re saying that you’re not going to change your view and therefore no-one ever changes their view. That’s wrong. People do sometimes, and the possible reasons are wide ranging. Different information leads to different opinions – with an open mind that is.

    Please don’t try to diminish Einstein’s belief into merely a sense of awe. You’d be one of many who have tried to make out that he was not being literal, or twist his words in one way or another. Why not just disagree with him instead? He said he was:

    “convinced that a Spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a Spirit vastly superior to that of man”.

    (And this mention of the laws of physics was before the fine tuning was found. He’d have been dancing if he’d heard about the fine tuning!)

    He also said that he had “a religious feeling of a special sort”. Speaks for itself, eh? The reason he was at times ambiguous was that he was under attack from morons at the time, and as a result wanted to disassociate himself from the naive kind of religion.

    Now we can agree to disagree, but please don’t twist what’s being said by anyone. That is a bad habit, and it’s more common among philosophers in denial than any other demographic… good luck me hearties.

  167. That used to be more true than it is now. Rational argument used to be, as you say, comparatively unimportant in these questions. But you’re out of date. My father was a hardened atheist, and he came from a family of hardened atheists. He was very rational. I convinced him there was a designer of some kind, using rational argument. But that was of course after 1979, when everything changed.

    I think we should agree to disagree, which is easy enough to do. If we ever agree in the future, we can agree to agree, which will be even easier.. I’ll leave now, good wishes.

  168. Thanks for the conversation, I have a clearer idea about a few things, including the approach that can disprove the existence of the multiverse (statistically) by showing it to be uneconomical within the laws that led to intelligent life. This actually is directly relevant to the original topic of this thread! It’s a specific way of showing that the multiverse doesn’t explain all the apparent coincidences – so far I’ve only done it in a loose way.

    Yes, I hope we meet again. Meanwhile, better study your newfound faith. People who are very rational now believe a multiverse must exist, as like you they don’t believe in design:

  169. Thanks. I’m interested in both scenarios, and what we might find out from here. I don’t know if it’s possible to show rigourously that the multiverse doesn’t explain all the coincidences. I suspect it isn’t – after all, as I’ve said, I think we’re deliberately left wondering. So I expect that goes on. btw, the article on the multiverse is from New Scientist last year, is interesting in a general way anyway.

  170. PS Just searched “Eppur si muove”. As you’ll see from the complicated untestable nonsense in the article on the multiverse, the present day scientific establishment is the direct equivalent of the church establishment in the Gallileo story.

  171. Gallileo was talking about conclusions coming directly from scientific observations – what we actually know. The established orthodoxy was peddling a stupid faith, that had no connection to observation.

    Irony always involves an element of inversion. The present situation is the exact reversal. If we throw away faith in unobservables, and go only by what we actually observe, we get evidence for an intelligence at work. They’re denying it in an increasingly desperately way as we find out more, and so are you. And yet still it moves.

    Ah well, new information always takes time to be absorbed. It will be faced up to within a decade or two. You see, if the multiverse existed, you’d expect a kind of statistical minimalism that we just don’t find.

  172. Well, I will just say that the author talks a lot about evidence but never gives a definition of what is evidence.

    Then the author is talking about God and about religion, but he conflates time and again God with religion, so that he has a confused exposition: for God is not religion, and religion is not God.

    Does God exist as the nose in man’s face exists: that is the claim of Christian theists, meaning to say even when we are not conscious of our nose the nose exists, that is what I mean about God existing, so that even though no one knows God existing God exists.

    Then also what is it to prove that something exists to us humans?

    We prove something exists by bringing that something to be examined by people who are not aware that it exists, for example, the nose in our face, by bringing our nose to the eyes and hands of people who do not know there is a nose in our face, so that they can see the nose with their eyes, and touch the nose with the fingers of their hands.

    That is the idea of proving something to exist to people who do not know that such a something exists,

    Suppose that something is so huge as for example that there is a cover all over a whole town which is transparent and also penetrable, meaning you can pass through it but it will seal itself up again once you have gone through it: how do we prove to people who do not know such a cover so huge as to envelop a whole town?

    At this point we must distinguish between people who do not know that something exists and people who will resist the proving of something to exist even though they grasp the concept of that something.

    Atheists are not ignorant and they are certainly not at all ignorant of the concept of God in the Christian faith in God’s fundamental relation to the universe, which is that God is the creator of the universe and everything in the universe, but peculiarly atheists insist on denying God’s existence in objective reality and exert all kinds of efforts to prove to themselves that there is no God, and to others who care to give them a hearing ear that there is no God.

    With atheists there is resistance, opposition, self-seclusion and immunization against any proof altogether to the existence of God; they even take up the \stubborn willful insistence that it is impossible to know God exists, even though God really exists and others have come to such knowledge with their reasoning from the fact of the existence of the universe and everything in the universe.

    There, how can you prove to such people atheists with such a self-immunization against proof of God’s existence?

    And God is even more huge and more subtle than that cover that encloses a whole town, and is transparent and penetrable still however will seal up any hole by which anything passes through to exit the space enclosed by the cover.

    It is impossible to not so much to prove as to achieve a cognitive admission from atheists to come to the existence of God, they are moved and motivated to deny for it is their emotive will to declare that God does not exist — it is like a father will do everything to prove to a son that he is the father, but the son owing to his emotive disposition of opposition and self-immunization will never acquiesce cognitively.

    So, it is impossible humanly to prove to an atheist that God exists, if that man is a self-professed; but it is possible to prove to one who does not know God exists, but is not a committed self-declared and self-immunized atheist, even though God is so huge and so subtle that we cannot bring the person un-acquainted with the concept of God to the presence of God: so that his eyes can see and his hands can reach out to attain a sense experience of God’s presence.

    How to prove the existence of such huge and subtle things as a big big cover enclosing a whole town as described above and also God Who is everywhere and all subtle?

    By indirect evidence, i.e., by bringing the mind of the not-knowing person to experience things which are accessible to his senses, and then show how with the use of his reason he will come to the knowledge of God’s existence from his perception of things which cannot be existing and be in operation if God does not exist, for these things at one time were not existing, then they existed, and eventually in some time later would cease existing.

    What are such things? What about extinct species of life which were existing in the past but now no longer, also each human person who was existing at one time and then he died and no longer exists now in his organic body — let us not talk about the soul of man for the present.

    So, something can be proven to exist by direct evidence when it is something that can be brought to the examination of a person not knowing its existence, but for something so huge as the cover described above enclosing a whole town and also God, then we who want to prove to the unknowing person their existence, we must resort to indirect evidence.

    Now, the whole universe and everything in it is indirect evidence for the existence of God as creator of everything in the universe, and also the universe itself: for the universe did not exist the way it is now and many things in the universe had existed once and now no longer, these two facts make up indirect evidence that God created the universe.

    What about that the universe is eternal?

    In which case we are talking about the universe that is God Himself when God had not created yet the universe that was yet to be created by Him; for we know or we must know that there has always been something and that something is God — for if there has always been nothing, then nothing is nothing and neither God nor universe can be around and neither us humans be around to be the case as we are humans now existing we are the case as also the created universe.

    There are quite a number of apparent conundrums to this explanation for the existence of God, that require more time and bandwidth to deal with; but readers who are possessed of a free honest heart and an open mind, they will see the reason of this explanation.

    That is why the author of this piece of write-up should first expound on the concept of God in the Christian faith in His fundamental relation to the universe, which is that God is the creator of everything in the universe and even the universe itself.

    And he should also explain what is evidence, what is it to prove that something exists in objective reality and not only as a concept in man’s mind.


  173. I plead guilty to two of Pachomius’s charges.

    I admit that I used the word ‘religion’ elliptically, as a short-form for “religions with gods”. That’s not technically right, but I did do it. My only excuse is that this is how others in the conversation have been using it. In any case, nothing in my argument falters as a result of this equivocation.

    I also admit that the entire conversation, including the above post, is not going to make any sense unless we assume that there is some concrete conception of “evidence” that we can appeal to. I don’t really have anything useful to say in this area, not having focused on it. There are some platitudes you might say about evidence — that it is theory-relevant data, for instance — but those platitudes are not going to be a working part in the argument I made. After all, a theist (like John Lennox, for instance) could claim that they have evidence of the divine, too, in the sense of ‘theory-relevant data’.

    So Pachomius is right — quite a lot depends on how you make sense of ‘evidence’. P asks: “Suppose that something is so huge as for example that there is a cover all over a whole town which is transparent and also penetrable, meaning you can pass through it but it will seal itself up again once you have gone through it: how do we prove to people who do not know such a cover so huge as to envelop a whole town?” What kind of evidence qualifies? Well, I don’t know specifically what evidence would qualify, since it’s such a science fiction example, and because my thoughts on the demarcation of evidence from non-evidence are foggy at best.

    But if we think we can prove that it exists, there had better be some conditions under which the intangible dome can be verified. Suppose I keep asking you for the verification conditions, and you provide them (e.g, you say the dome can be detected by using X-Rays). Now suppose I look at the X-Ray machine, and see nothing. When I confront you with the fact that the claim has been falsified, you can keep changing those conditions (e.g., you might say that the X-Ray machine will only see the dome on Tuesdays). And then I go prove you wrong, and you come back with something else, and that back-and-forth can go on forever. Some people, like Myers, will argue that your goalpost-changing indicates that you have put yourself beyond evidence. By contrast, I think it is more accurate to say that with each successive engagement I have proved you wrong anew — each new failure only deepens the hole you’ve dug for yourself.

    So it is wrong to assert that “With atheists there is resistance, opposition, self-seclusion and immunization against any proof altogether to the existence of God”; that might be true of some atheists, like Myers, but the entire point of my post is that I am not of that sort (and neither is Coyne). If you want to show otherwise, you’d have to show that some things qualify as evidence, but which I do not consider to be evidence due to some personal defect. For instance, you might argue that there’s a Calvinistic divine sense organ in all of us, which is defective in me. We could then talk about ‘divine’ intuitions (which I suppose I do have), and how I think you’re confusing divine intuitions with belief in the divine, which is not an inference warranted by any different source of evidence: nothing I see, taste, touch, feel, etc.

    When you write that “peculiarly atheists insist on denying God’s existence in objective reality and exert all kinds of efforts to prove to themselves that there is no God”, you’ve got things backwards. If there is an objectively real God, then there is no objective reality for us. That’s because it would turn out that the world is dependent on His mind, and hence, is not real. Some people might get any comfort from the belief that we are swimming around as the figments of imagination of some warlock’s dream, but the attractions of such a belief elude me.

    It’s also a belief that runs counter to any reasoned inference. We’re supposed to believe in the divine “By indirect evidence, i.e., by bringing the mind of the not-knowing person to experience things which are accessible to his senses, and then show how with the use of his reason he will come to the knowledge of God’s existence from his perception of things which cannot be existing and be in operation if God does not exist, for these things at one time were not existing, then they existed, and eventually in some time later would cease existing.” I guess the idea here is that things are created, therefore there’s a creator. But then that only works because you’ve assumed a contentious antecedent. Things — species, people — are transmuted and destroyed, never created. When you start throwing around terms like the ‘eternal’, the best explanation seems to be fatalism; and from that point of view, not even Picasso was a creator.